Old Stories, New Visions: Mary Button

Old Stories, New Visions: Mary Button

Her work mixes art, politics, and religion.  "I try to use old stories to draw my viewers into new meanings," says painter Mary Button.  Button trained in fine arts at New York University, and studied theology at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.  Her work has been featured in events at the United Nations and the National Council of Churches, and she is currently an artist-in-residence at First Congregational Church in Memphis, Tennessee.

In our conversation, we talk about several of Button's works, including Paul on the Road to Natchez and The Hymnbook Project.  One particular panel from The Hymnbook Project, shown at left, overlays images of George Wallace and the Civil Rights struggle on top of the biblical story of King Herod.  Button finds these sorts of juxtapositions at the crux of her creative process, starting with an "old story," here represented by the mock newspaper broadside of the Chronicles of the Old Testament, and building layer by layer toward a "new meaning."  As Button puts it, she saw Wallace as fitting into the mold of a classic biblical villain.  The George Wallace Hymnbook has gotten a strong response from viewers, and is now a part of the collection at the Library at Louisiana State University.  You can view the whole piece here.

In the extra audio portion, Button also discusses her most recent project, a Syrian-themed Stations of the Cross, which she prepared as an installation at First Congregational Church:
Born among the swampy wilds of East Texas to a Lutheran minister and American history teacher, Button's childhood was steeped in the stories and images of the South.  Moving north to study at New York University only made that bond grow stronger.  "I pretty much read Faulkner all the time," she says, adding that these atmospheres of Southern Gothic, brought to life by writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, wove their way into her art more and more.

Button draws inspiration from the collage-art and social commentary made by Catholic nun, Sister Corita Kent.  She also notes that her Paul on the Road to Natchez series also parallels the Cotton Patch translations of the Gospels, made by farmer-theologian Clarence Jordan in the late 1960s.  Jordan is well-known as a co-founder of both Habitat for Humanity and the Koinonia Farm outside Plains, Georgia.

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