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JERRY EVENRUD'S PRODIGAL SON ART COLLECTION SPEAKS OF FORGIVENESS

One of many art pieces in Evenrud's collection

One of many art pieces in Evenrud's collection

Collection may be the world’s largest

Everything you may have wanted to know about Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son can be experienced visually through paintings, etchings, sculpture, woodcuts, tapestries, ceramics and posters collected by Jerry Evenrud, Edina, Minnesota. Composers including Debussy, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten have treated the story musically.
“The Prodigal Son story has permeated the culture at … many levels, from the sophisticated — opera and ballet — to the folk, in comic books and ‘Precious Moments’ figures,” Evenrud says. He began his collection in 1983 while he was director of music and the arts on the national staff of the then American Lutheran Church (ALC).
Various cultures put their own mark on the parable. “Thomas Hart Benton uses the Prodigal Son to comment on the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” Evenrud says. “The son returns home, but there is no father, the house has fallen down, and the fatted calf is represented by an empty skull.” Gary Gurwell, a South Dakotan, depicts the characters as Native American.
“This one operates on two levels,” Evenrud says of a brightly colored print by He Qi, a Chinese artist who has exhibited his work at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. “On one level it’s the son rejoining his father. On a politically correct Chinese level, this is a family reunion during the festival they call Big Moon.”
Diversity of its treatment in art testifies to the universality of the Prodigal Son story. Christians may find a penitential Lenten theme in the progression from the son’s departure with his inheritance to debauchery, degradation among pigs and finally reunion with the forgiving father.
“This is the eternal homecoming,” twentieth century artist Leonard Baskin has said of his sculptural version of the parable.
Items in Evenrud’s collection represent six centuries. He has taken the pieces on the road 35 times for exhibit at colleges, seminaries and museums across the midwest and as far east as Washington, D.C.
Impetus for the collection came as Evenrud was leaving his post as director of ministry of music at Grace Lutheran Church (ELCA), Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 1976. During his years at Grace (and while a faculty member at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 1955-1976) Evenrud had started a committee called Art for Faith’s Sake. Art on biblical themes was exhibited annually with some pieces purchased by the church.
The most controversial, Evenrud explains, was a linoleum block print by Robert Hodgell of Madison, Wisconsin, showing the Prodigal Son crouching between sows, a whiskey flask in his hip pocket and wearing on his sleeves cuff links bearing the Playboy Bunny emblem. Some members of Grace Lutheran wanted it moved to an inconspicuous corner.
After Evenrud played his last service at the church, a male parishioner told him, “Every time I pass that pig picture, I think that, but for the grace of God and Alcoholics Anony-mous, I’d be there myself.”
For Evenrud, “This was an ‘Aha!’ moment. I realized we were not just decorating the church with art. We were operating in other layers of meaning.”
That moment prompted a sabbatical project seven years later when Evenrud spent several months in England investigating art and music inspired by the Prodigal Son parable. As the collection has grown, the other layers of meaning have been reinforced.
In his most recent exhibition, in Spring 2000 at the Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, Illinois, comments made to Evenrud included, “A powerful homily!” (retired bishop Arthur O’Neill), and “A testimony to the greatness of Jesus’ parable” (Timothy Botts, Illinois calligrapher).
Art critic Edwin Wolf II refers to historically popular Prodigal Son art as “visual prayers on the walls of 18th century homes in England and America, redolent with the smell of roast beef and candle wax.”
Jesus appears in two pieces in different periods and styles. In the first of a series of four intricately detailed 1593 Dutch engravings by Hieronymus Natalis, Christ is depicted telling his parable in the background as the son in the foreground packs to leave home.
Carl Grupp, Augustana Lutheran College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, portrays a life-sized Prodigal Son in a contemporary athletic uniform, with pigs, an apocalyptic horseman and a boldly stroked, crucified Christ.
“One hardly ever sees icons of the Prodigal,” Evenrud says, but he owns two, one from Russia and one from Greece. Another novelty is a set of twelve French dessert plates, rare creamware from 1820, illustrating the story verse by verse.
There’s a 19th century Nathaniel Currier print, before his partnership with Ives, titled, “The Prodigal Son Wasting His Substance.”
“Most Sensuous” is Evenrud’s phrase for an 18th century Viennese work by Augustin Legrand, showing the Prodigal Son on a couch dallying with two women.
The CORS Society (Collectors of Religious Stamps lists eight postage stamps commemorating the Prodigal Son, one each from France, Maldives, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, San Marino, Sweden and Yemen. Evenrud owns one of each.
“I have people looking out for me,” he says. “They send me things.” After she heard him speak in Jackson, Minnesota, a woman went home and tore a Prodigal Son illustration from her 1872 Bible to give to him.
St. Paul, Minnesota, artist Edward Summers created “Longing to See Again,” a fabric portrayal of the parable, after viewing the collection. On a lighter note, Don Hunt, Madison, Wisconsin, responded by crafting ceramic vodka bottles with a swine motif.
Evenrud concludes, “My collection serves as a catalyst for further creativity.”