American artist, Qur’an culture
Art focused on the Qur’an might seem like an odd choice for a California surfer. But artist Sandow Birk is a man of many interests. Birk, whose work has been shown in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gave a talk on Thursday, Sept. 12 and his art is now being shown in the Center for the Arts Gallery. He is one of several artists participating in the “And The Word Is…,” exhibit.
“I started surfing when I was 11, and that had the most impact on where I traveled,” Birk said in his lecture. “I dropped out of college after two years, and a friend and I decided to drive down to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival.”
After four years in Rio, Birk went back to college to study art. When he returned to Los Angeles, Birk began to paint versions of maritime scenes with figures of surfers.
“I thought about that phrase, write (or paint) what you know, and what I knew was surfing,” Birk said.
Lindsay Eckenrode, a Towson student who attended the lecture, said the talk was inspiring.
“I thought it was interesting how he came out of a sub-culture, like 80’s punk rock, and fused that with his love of surfing and art history,” she said. “As an artist myself, I can relate to that message.”
Birk’s paintings began to take a more socio-political turn when he began painting versions of Old Masters, replacing the figures and scenery with people and places in the lower-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles. After the Rodney King riots of 1992, Birk began questioning the direction of his art.
“I had been doing fake history events, but I was seeing history being made all around me,” Birk said.
Birk continued making art in the style of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, depicting current issues such as gang truces and the O.J. Simpson coverage. His interest in American politics had him to paint the war in the Middle East.
“One day, I naively thought, ‘I’m gonna figure out Islam for myself.’ I bought an English copy, and began looking at historical, handmade Qu’rans,” Birk said.
When he went to Ireland to surf, he found a large collection of Qur’ans.
“If this is a message from God to humanity,” Birk said, “How does it relate to me?”
Birk set out to find a way to make the Qur’an accessible to Americans unfamiliar with it. He found a translation that was free of copyright, and began reproducing each page, adding illustrations from modern American life to correspond with the verses.
“People are surprised that so much of what they already know is in the Qu’ran,” Birk said.
Pages from Birk’s “American Quran” series are on display through Dec. 7 in the Center for the Arts, along with religious-themed art by Meg Hitchcock, Stephanie Kirk and several others.