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Prodigal Son artwork to be on display at Basilica

Jerry Evenrud started collecting art related to the Prodigal Son in 1955, while working as a musician at a church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He hosted an “Art for Faith’s Sake” exhibit on Reformation Day to show art inspired by biblical narrative. Robert Hodgell, an artist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, offered the interpretation of the Prodigal Son to the left. Hodgell uses religious subject matter almost exclusively. “I liked the Prodigal Son between two pigs,” explained Evenrud, “but I also noticed the Playboy symbol on the cuff link and the whiskey flask” making the story all the more human. Artist: Robert Hodgell; photo courtesy of Luther Seminary

Having made its way around the country, the prolific Prodigal Son art collection of Jerry Evenrud will be featured locally during the Lenten season at the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis. Evenrud began the collection in 1986 and has amassed over 600 pieces of visual art based on the biblical parable from Luke 15. In 2007, he donated the collection to Luther Seminary where it is now loaned out on a regular basis.

For the Basilica of St. Mary, hosting the art exhibit during Lent was a natural fit. Johan von Parys, director of liturgy and sacred arts, shared, “The story of the Prodigal Son is one that resonates well. The eternal story of forgiveness, which we need so very much, rings true with people everywhere. We thought it would be very fitting to host this display during Lent.”

Evenrud was elated to receive the invitation. “The size and scope of the Basilica gallery will allow us to show pieces of the collection not often viewed by the public.”

“The body of work is incredibly broad in scope, from traditional oil andwatercolor to photography to tapestry to posters and book materials.”

Opened in 2000, the Basilica gallery has become a popular showcase for religious art. “The reason we started this gallery,” explained von Parys, “is we believe the visual arts provide another venue for the church to communicate the message of the gospel. In this case, every depiction of the Prodigal Son gives us a different outlook on the story. We hope that people will leave the exhibit moved and changed.”

Dr. Diane Jacobson, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, has spent her career studying the Bible and given special attention to the interpretation of the Prodigal parable. “If there is one aspect of this collection that has been most influential to me, it is the remarkable way different cultures interpret the text. Artists from other parts of the world reflect details in the text we don’t even see.” Jacobson points to phrases like, “nobody took him in,” or “there was a famine in the land,” that may be overlooked by Americans who have never experienced homelessness or famine. And yet, Evenrud’s collection brings these important aspects of the parable to bear in deeply engaging ways.

The above large abstract triptych is “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It is acrylic on multiple wood panels, 24x78. This painting represents the three major movements of the Prodigal Son parable through shape and color. The first arrangement is “leave taking,” the moment when the son decides to follow his humanness away from the family. The second panel is “descent,” the fall into darkness and the natural consequence of being led by the pleasures of the flesh. The third arrangement is “stasis,” the return of the now-dark son to family and the elder brother following his anger, transforming himself into the mirror image of the prodigal son in the first panel. Matthew Nelson, artist-in-residence at Luther Seminary, says of his work, “I try to create visual moments that hold the experience of an inconceivably loving God, using color and form.” Courtesy of Luther Seminary

“Every depiction of the Prodigal Son gives us a different outlook on the story.”

“The other aspect that matters to me is the points of view of the parable’s minor characters, for instance the portrayal of the servants as humans and not just instruments of the text.” Jacobson mused, “For Americans, we love to call this the story of the Prodigal Son because that’s the American story. But actually I think the American story is way more about the story of the older son. We just don’t like to admit that. We want this story to be about us. We want to own it in a way that almost traps us into missing important details others see. In truth this parable is much more about how God loves and forgives than it is about us.”

A collection as an offering of artistic expression

The rich theological, artistic, and cultural diversity drew then-President David Tiede to work with Luther Seminary archivist Paul Daniels to house the collection at the seminary when Evenrud was looking for a permanent home. The move coincided with a featured exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City and the publication of a catalog book, And Grace Will Lead Me Home, still available from Lutheran University Press.

Collaborating with Evenrud and the collection has been a highlight for Daniels. “The body of work is incredibly broad in scope, from traditional oil and watercolor to photography to tapestry to posters and book materials.” The greatest delight has been watching the collection continue to grow even after its arrival at the seminary. “What really tickles Jerry is how artists continue to engage the story in brand new ways with a liveliness that never ceases to amaze.” Daniels believes the parable has a timeless accessibility because it tells the universal story of an imperfect family with imperfect relationships to which many can relate.

The figurative painting, “The Prodigal Son works the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous,” is acrylic on canvas, 24x48. This painting is a modernization of the moment the prodigal steps out of the bar and realizes that he now is powerless over his flesh. Photo provided by Luther Seminary

The newest addition to the collection has been created by Matthew Nelson, Luther Seminary’s artist-in-residence, and will premiere at the Basilica exhibit. Nelson’s first contribution was a Prodigal painting. As he reflected more deeply on the parable, he decided to work on a second piece, this time a triptych of three panels to more fully encompass the progression of the story. “I thought it would be interesting to see how far I could go with an abstract,” said Nelson. In the end, each of the three panels is made up of multiple panels to reflect the complex dimensions of the parable.

With a grateful heart, Evenrud reflects, “At 83, I didn’t know if I’d see another comprehensive showing of these works. I’m just thrilled the Basilica is hosting the upcoming exhibit and hope that many will come and see.”

Mary Brown works in media with the Odyssey Networks in New York. She is an ELCA pastor, living in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

Viewing the exhibit

The Prodigal Son exhibit opens at the Basilica of St. Mary, www.mary.org, on Ash Wednesday, February 13, and will run through Sunday, April 28. A reception for collector Jerry Evenrud will be held at the gallery on Sunday, March 17, at 1 p.m.

For more information, contact Kathy Dhaemers at kdhaemers@mary.org or 612/317-3438.

Jerry Evenrud, Prodigal Son art collector, wears his favorite hat, which sports ELCA, which he explains was a gift from a friend who said the letters stand for “Evenrud Loves Christian Art.” Evenrud can be seen around town driving his automobile with a license plate that reads “Luke 15.” Photo provided by Luther Seminary

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