Daniel Nevins sent samples of his work to Candlewick Press, a children’s book publisher, in the mid-1990s. It took the company almost two decades to respond to the Asheville-based artist’s query, but it was worth the wait: Candlewick paired Nevins with writer Amy Ehrlich, and together they created With a Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah.
Nevins’ part of that publication was a series of 40 narrative paintings depicting various characters and scenes from the first five books of the Bible. Those works will be shown for the first time, alongside some of Nevins’ related paintings and large-scale abstracts, at UNC Asheville’s S. Tucker Cooke Gallery. An opening reception takes place Thursday, Sept. 24.
The images in With a Mighty Hand are immediately recognizable as Nevins’ creations — the wide-eyed faces are reminiscent of iconography, gestures are graceful, colors are saturated, and graphic shapes and swirls depict plants and topography. (Ingeniously, the Red Sea spans the center spread, allowing the reader to part its waves and whorls of blue and crimson.) Even the animals are sweetly rendered, from the speckled goats and swarming frogs to the sturdy donkey ridden by the sorcerer Balaam. But while the figures recall Nevins’ previous spiritually infused paintings, he says this project came with special considerations.
“There was a series of emails about how long Moses’ beard should be,” says Nevins. “There was a point where I decided everyone should be barefoot, because sandals look so silly … barefoot is poetic.” It was a lot of work to iron out the details but, Nevins points out, people feel strongly about religious work — and this particular book is based on the beginnings of not just Judaism but also Islam and Christianity.
A friend said to Nevins, “No pressure, but you’re going to shape the way generations of Jewish children are going to see their religion.” His response: “As long as Candlewick is OK with ancient Hebrews-meet-The Yellow Submarine.” Turns out the publisher owns the rights to that particular Beatles imagery, so the philosophical mashup resonated.
Another win for the painter: “One thing I’m proud of in there is that I painted Adam and Eve without bellybuttons,” he said on the podcast Anecdotal Evidence with Daniel Johnson. “Because why would they have them? … Unless God is a faux-finisher, it wouldn’t make any sense.”
Jokes aside, the project was a momentous one for Nevins. He dedicated two years to the collection. With a Mighty Hand entered the painter’s life, ironically, shortly after he’d decided to move from figurative to abstract work. But those pieces — not so much abstractions as representations of emotions, senses and organic explorations — have rarely been seen by Asheville audiences. Blue Spiral 1 hosted an exhibit of five new paintings in 2009, and Nevins was part of a group show at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh last year showcasing the work of the 2013 N.C. Arts Council Artist Fellowship Awards recipients.
“It seems like we all have a floating world inside of us that I feel like I can express in shapes and colors and forms,” Nevins said of his abstract work on Anecdotal Evidence. “But it’s not necessarily supposed to relate to anything you can encounter in your daily life.”
Something similar could be said of the mysticism inherent in religion and the experiences of those of faith. “Religion and art have always been entwined in my imagination,” wrote Nevins — who describes himself as a failed Irish Catholic — in the artist’s note at the end of With a Mighty Hand. “The impulse toward each was the same, and the feeling I had while involved in each was a profound remembering.”
The exhibition at UNC Asheville is intended, Nevins says, to be a conversation between the humanities and the visual arts as they meet in book form. The show is co-sponsored by the university’s Center for Jewish Studies and paired with the related lecture, “Riffing on Scripture: Artistic License and the Bible” on Wednesday, Sept. 30, by Jay Jacoby. A writing and literature instructor, Jacoby also leads classes on the Hebrew Bible at the university’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
“It’s also a meeting between representational art, narrative art and abstract art,” Nevins says of the show. The N.C. Arts Council fellowship allowed him to move into a roomier studio space and work not only on his abstract pieces but in large form. But despite the immediate differences between the Torah-based paintings (meant, according to a press release, “to appeal to audiences of all ages and faiths, serving as a vehicle for contemplation and conversation”) and Nevins’ nonfigurative pieces, the painter is aware of the link between the two.
“Where the Torah paintings are depictions of stories, the abstract paintings are about the internal world we each carry inside of us, our emotional landscape,” Nevins says in a press release. And to Xpress, “The figurative work is what it looks like. The abstract work is what it feels like.”
WHAT: With A Mighty Hand: Torah Paintings + Abstraction from Daniel Nevins
WHERE: S. Tucker Cooke Gallery in Owen Hall, UNC Asheville, avl.mx/1ks
WHEN: The exhibit is on display through Friday, Oct. 30, with an opening reception Thursday, Sept. 24, 6-8 p.m. Jay Jacoby gives the lecture “Riffing on Scripture: Artistic License and the Bible” Wednesday, Sept. 30, 7-9 p.m. in the Manheimer Room, Reuter Center. Artist lecture Thursday, Oct. 22, 6 p.m. in the Humanities Lecture Hall. Free.