By Andrew Kosorok
(Special to Simerg)
I will meditate on what this Name means to me, personally, and how I see the Name reflected in lives and events around me, and do more sketches. Praying that my hand is guided correctly, I will start to expand the sketches into drawings of a workable sculpture that, for lack of a better description, “feels” right.
I am a Christian. My father was an engineer, my mother was an educator, and my LDS Christian upbringing was, evidently, rather non-traditional. (The full name of the LDS church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons.) Rather than to take things at face value, or believe unequivocally what we are told, my brothers and I were taught that the Creator was a Being of reason; this meant we were expected to question, research, and trust the Holy Spirit as a guide to learning. We were also taught that no one can be saved in ignorance, and that God expected us to learn as much as we could.
As a result of this upbringing, my reaction to sensationalist coverage of another faith has been to try to find out the reality, as opposed to blind acceptance of the coverage. The representation of Islam in the media has been particularly distorted since the horrible events of 9/11, victims of which were of all backgrounds and ethnicities; as voices become more shrill, it becomes increasingly more important to determine — rationally — what the reality truly is. After the tragedy of 9/11, there were several instances of people striking out in their ignorance and pain. In the Salt Lake City, Utah area, there were a number of attacks on Muslim-owned businesses, attacks which included vandalism and arson. In concert with many other religious leaders, the leader of the LDS church — President Gordon B. Hinckley — decried these acts of violence. In his response, he declared that the followers of the Prophet Muhammad were our spiritual siblings, and many other leaders of the LDS church reminded us that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all “Children of the Book,” spiritual sons and daughters of Father Abraham.
Rather than turning to sensationalist sources to learn more, I turned to the Qur’an and Muslims I knew to learn what this faith was about. As an artist trained in traditional western stained glass techniques, my inclination is constructive resolution and not confrontation. When I felt I needed to do something to counteract my own ignorance of this group spiritually related to me, I determined to keep a journal of my learning process, and to share it with whoever cared to look. The first sculptures resulting from this determination were exhibited with my Masters exhibition at Brigham Young University; they were built as direct responses to my initial attempts at healing my ignorance. Only three out of the dozen sculptures in that exhibition dealt directly with Islam, and I was told by Muslims who came that they were shocked that a Christian could show such reverence and respect for their faith. The gratitude I felt that my intent was recognized was tremendous.
That reaction, given unasked by Muslims I have grown to respect, encouraged me to continue. Art is its own language and can speak to a viewer’s heart and mind when spoken words will not; much of what I have learned has been verbally articulated by experts so much more experienced than myself — the art I am producing is my personal response to this information rather than a recitation or repackaging. One of those who saw the exhibit told me I had been used as a tool by God to answer his prayer, and I realized that I needed to take this opportunity, and responsibility, seriously.
After thinking of many things that would provide structure for my exploration of Islam, including reflections on the Hadith and the Suras of the Qur’an, I looked for a list that would both be identifiable with the faith I was examining and could strengthen my own. One of the Imams I spoke with told me I needed to pray and listen to the answers I received, so I prayed for guidance as I did my research. I came across a list of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God, and realized that this was a perfect solution: the Names are comfortable to a non-Muslim audience because of their parallel to the Christian Beatitudes, and they are an ideal framework for a Christian’s exploration of Islam. I began internet searches for explanations of the Names and organizations that teach about them, and started emailing Muslims around the world. I immediately started getting responses.
I was sent video of conferences covering Islamic views of art production; treatises and articles on the 99 Names translated into English for my benefit; descriptions of the personal impact the Names have had in the lives of Imams, Sheikhs, and laity; and books sent by Muslims and Islamic organizations supporting my efforts. The online branch of a University in Amman, Jordan gave me a scholarship to study Islamic theology and the 99 Names. They told me that my note of inquiry was received as they were finalizing the course offering on the 99 Most Beautiful Names — no one had been told the class was being offered yet, so they felt the timing of my letter was more than merely coincidental. Almost everyone I contacted has been gracious and has offered words of support, grateful that a non-Muslim is constructively interested in their faith. Those who have seen images of the works have expressed their gratitude at the seriousness with which I have approached the project, and I am truly grateful for their prayers on my behalf.
I will be building a total of 100 sculptures responding to the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God, completing the series at the close of 2012. As the works are completed, I have been engaging sites for their display, and local Muslims have volunteered to come to the exhibitions and share their insight to the power and vitality of the Names of God in their personal lives. In addition to my own sculptural work, there are shown drawings I have done as “blueprints” for the sculptures, and an electronic slideshow of contemporary Islamic Holy Name calligraphy by Muslim artists around the world. Attendees to the show ask questions and hear more about Islam, and many have told me the experience was an ideal introduction to a culture and faith that they would have felt anxious about in any other environment.
As the project has progressed, the response has remained positive from both non-Muslims and Muslims alike. An essential part of the project is its sharing with Muslims around the world; I want Muslims internationally to know that Americans like myself are willing and eager to heal ignorance propagated by sensationalist media. My hope is that the project exhibitions will move throughout the country, and eventually be shown around the world — through the internet, more people are seeing the work as it progresses, and my hope for international exhibitions appears less and less far fetched.
My process has been labor intensive, but this seems appropriate for the subject of the project — the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. After studying about a particular Name, reading discourses and commentary by noted Muslim scholars, I make sketches that are my initial responses. I will meditate on what this Name means to me, personally, and how I see the Name reflected in lives and events around me, and do more sketches. Praying that my hand is guided correctly, I will start to expand the sketches into drawings of a workable sculpture that, for lack of a better description, “feels” right. Using geometry, the book arts, and architectural details, I then draw the pattern I use as a “blueprint” for construction of the glass sculpture. Geometry is important because, during the medieval era of my own forebears, Islam kept much of the world’s scientific knowledge in sacred trust; the book arts are important because of their connection to the Qur’an, and the miracle of Divine interest and hope in humankind it represents; and architectural references are important because they reflect on the Kingdom of God being built by the faithful.
As the project continues, I have seen the positive effects of the many prayers offered on my behalf. Things have happened, in regards to doors being opened and hearts softened, that recall to mind the direction offered me by a local Imam, “Coincidences rarely occur when we commit to the service of Allah, regardless of whether you have the good fortune to be Muslim.” I have witnessed that good Muslims and good Christians not only can get along, but can also be best of friends — through integrity with their own faith, mutual respect, and appreciation for their distinctive differences. Through sharing, in a non-confrontational environment, the things I am learning about another faith, I find my own faith growing; I hope that this project of mine will prove not be unique.
Original Publication Date: Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Article updated: Thursday, July 29, 2010
(Special to Simerg)
It is difficult sometimes to say exactly why an image or a shape feels appropriate as a response to a specific Name, and if I could accurately articulate the “why,” I think I would be a much better writer! To give some context to viewers of the works, I write a short paragraph for display beneath the title card which includes some traditional explanation for the Name as well as my own response. I am happy to try to trace my thoughts on one of the sculptures, Compeller (Al-Jabbar).
When I started meditating on Compeller, my thoughts kept circling one of my favorite prophets, Jonah. He is a prophet that seems to really like procrastination, and did everything he could think of to put off going to Nineveh (I personally think a big part of that was his desire not to see Nineveh destroyed), but God kept revealing His hand and pushing Jonah in the direction he had to go. It occurred to me that this was also a message that God is intimately aware of us and our unique needs wherever we may be in the world, and however far we may try to go. The 20-sided ball (icosahedron) is the Platonic solid symbolizing water, and served as a good analogy both for Jonah’s journey on the ocean and our own travels. Each panel is etched and painted with intricate vine motifs, which came to mind as I was thinking about how easily we get caught up in the mundane intricacies of everyday life, and how that can separate our hearts from God. Barely visible through the glass are shapes that are fishes in the bottom of the sculpture – the seven fishes represent the “Seven Seas,” another metaphor for our earthly journeys. And of course, the orange shape inside is Jonah’s giant gourd that was going to crush the Ninevites.
In the end, Jonah did everything he was supposed to, and so did the people of Nineveh. I’m not completely sure why this story was “whispered” to me as I worked on the sculpture, but I think it’s because God finds ways of showing us, boldly and undeniably, what He wants us to do – when we have set in our hearts a desire to serve Him, and don’t know quite how to do it.
The whole structure is tied together with techniques learned from traditional medieval bookbinding, as a symbol and reminder that everything is ultimately held together by the Word of God.
Note: Click on each image to view its enlargement.
Inspirer of Faith (Al-Mu’min)
Inspirer of Faith: The behavioral trinity in Islam is: God acts on us, we react to the blessing or chastisement, and the ensuing change informs our behavior towards God – God then responds in His actions on us, and the cycle continues. This three-point cycle is a reality that highlights the personal attention and desires of well being which God has for each of His creations. Each blessing, beginning with the basic ability to live, is a starting point of this cycle of personal spiritual growth. The worry stone suspended in the center reminds us that many times, trials and hardship begin a personal cycle of belief and change when blessings may not have had the same dramatic affect.
Compeller: The prophet Jonah was called to teach the people of Nineveh the error of their society’s ways; in the process of putting off what he may have felt was a hopeless cause, Jonah found himself in situations that consistently led him back to the will of God. The twenty-sided ball is the Platonic solid symbolizing water, and reminds us that regardless of where Jonah traveled – and wherever we may go, as well – he was still subject to the will of God. When charged with a sacred task, when trying to improve oneself, or when being the vehicle to answer the prayers another has offered, it is always beneficial to respond with a helpful attitude to the promptings and compulsions of the Divine Will.
Greatest: The universe is filled with created things, from the stars in the evening sky to the meanest clod of earth – specifically made by the hands of God for our benefit. As humans we possess the gift of perceiving this reality, and the capacity for discovering the order and Divine purpose in each bit of creation. The facets of this piece show constellations hidden in a field of evening blue; the inside faces of each panel carry symbols representing the different methods humans have used to help understand the immensity of creation. The amazing realization is that all things are made for our benefit, that we may fulfill the potential inherent in our own created selves.
Reliever: The Arabian Peninsula presents no natural bodies of open water which last the whole year. A symbol, then, of God’s mercy and grace is the miracle of a life-saving oasis, and the cool healing of the water sheltered there. This work houses a bottle of burn ointment, made from traditional remedies for healing and spiritual clarity, reflecting on the gift of God to heal the broken hearted, and to save – ultimately- the faithful.
Humbler: The universe was created through measure, weight, and number according to many traditions. The infinities of space, the complex interplay of ecosystems, the miracle of life itself, all have been provided for the benefit of us, the thinking creatures. Each face of this work is a window of reflection on the universe, built beyond our ability to comprehend, but for our benefit. None of us have earned this in any way – but to all of us, the universe is given freely.
Merciful: The hand of God – not His literal hand, but symbolically represented here with an image from a Fremont petroglyph – is spiritually extended to all, bond and free, rich and poor, whole or ill, who wish to partake of His infinite, eternal Mercy. Every individual who desires it may ask in faith for, and receive, Divine Mercy. The facts of the air we breathe, the world we have, and our very lives, are proof of the undeserved mercy of God, extended to us in the Divine hope we ourselves will improve. In our own interactions with others, and at every opportunity provided, we need to remember to extend that mercy we desire to receive (and know we need) to those around us; this improves the world we share, and can only serve to make us better, ourselves.
All sculptures shown above: Etched and Fired Glass
Five questions for Andrew Kosorok
Q1. On the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Lisbon. The Centre also features 99 Names of Allah on the two interior walls and a glass panel at the main entrance.
The photos are inspiring, and of course I am drawn to the glass over the door. The centre reminds me of something an early Mormon leader said, in respect to building holy sites – “Only the very best is almost good enough.”
Building the Ismaili center so beautifully and with beautiful embellishments and art, it reminds me that such care and reverence is necessary for such an undertaking. Being human, nothing we make will be truly perfect, but when constructing a holy site like the Center, I feel that God bridges whatever gap may exist, and the site becomes an extention of our hearts’ intent – and reflects a portion of our hopes of Paradise. God reaches towards the works of our hands, and transforms them into something holy. I have no idea how that works, the transformation of our mundane effort into something more than human, but I see plenty of evidence that it happens.
Q2. On the future Aga Khan Museum for Islamic Art in Toronto
With your news about the Aga Khan’s museum, I got rather excited. That will be another beautiful site, and you have given me something to aim for. Given the Aga Khan’s tremendous and very understated – I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read of him pointing to himself, unlike other world leaders - efforts towards peaceful global community and pluralism, displaying the Project there would be the ultimate Opus.
Q3. On calligraphy in the sculptures
I can’t read or write Arabic yet, so I don’t use calligraphy in any of the sculptures. The term “book arts” refers to the bookbinding techniques I use with the glass which are based on traditional techniques learned from a rare books curator. The forms etched in the glass are designs I draw developed from images I have found in tiles, architectural embellishments, and traditional Islamic text illuminations, taken from a broad range of locations and periods. The sculptures are my personal, non-representational responses to the Names; they are what happens when I reflect on the Names and “listen.”
Q4. On the size of the sculptures
The size of the sculptures are based on fractions of my own cubit, either 5/8 or 8/13. The size is meant to draw people in, and to show how personal the work is; I thought that making them bigger would be intimidating in a gallery setting – I think they would be excellent 10 feet across in a public space, however. The fractions are personal reflections on the pillars of Islam, and the number of angels which will carry God’s throne at Judgment – those fractions end up being about 11 1/2″ (about 30 cm), and I use my cubit to make it personal.
Q5. On how long it take to complete each sculpture
Each sculpture takes about 80 to 100 hours to complete, but that’s hours in the evenings (until 2:00 am or so) and on weekends, because I work full time at a stained glass studio (Glass Images and Creations, http://glassimages.biz/) and teach adjunct at Brigham Young University. Thankfully, some of the work can be done simultaneously – I will usually lay out 3 to 5 drawings and “blue prints” on an evening, and put glass for several sculptures into the kiln for firing at the same time. The hours reflect time on each piece (unfortunately), even including the overlapping. Some days I can only get an hour or two of work on a sculpture, and other days I will get into a “groove” and plug away for a stretch of 6 to 8 hours. Weekends are really productive.
Article publication date: July 31, 2010
About the writer: Andrew Kosorok, shown above working on the Merciful sculpture, has been a professional stained glass designer, consultant, and restoration specialist for twenty years, and teaches sculpture, stained glass, and drawing. He has received BFA and MFA degrees in sculpture from Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, and has studied philosophy and comparative religions. His stained glass work is in numerous homes and churches, and his sculptural work has been in state, national, and international art competitions. He believes that by examining the act of creation through art, one’s relationship with the Divine can be strengthened. His style is a product of the fusion of his various interests, building objects as records of the ongoing journey of learning and as a means to share the continuing process.
Editor’s note: We are indebted to Mr. Andrew Kosorok for writing this exclusive piece for Simerg, and for sharing with the readers of this Web site the magnificent images that are shown on this page. Please click them for enlargements. Simerg read about Mr. Kosorok’s interest in sculpting in an article published recently in The Deseret News, a Salt Lake City newspaper.