Bible stories not by using words, but through art

Last year, nine artists began to work on a way to tell Bible stories without needing words, specifically for the people of Zambia.

The idea has grown into a series of illustrations that can be used to share the Bible with people of any background, country, and most importantly, language.

One of the artists, New Ulm’s Maida Jaspersen, describes how the project came to be.

“The WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) has a man that’s the head of art missions,” Maida Jaspersen said. “And he started this project to make comics for Sunday schools overseas. And so our first series went to Zambia. And that was like a third of their curriculum, about a year’s worth of stories. But now our project is for Vietnam, and they want way, way, way more stories, like five times the amount of stories. And for each story, we’re making a version for younger kids and a version for teenagers, so its a ton of stuff to do.”

What makes the project so unique is that it doesn’t rely on any sort of words to tell a story — instead, it provides details though the universal language of pictures and art.

Maida Jaspersen of New Ulm works on one of the comics for the Vietnam Project in the studio in the basement of Sweet Haven Tonics in New Ulm.

Maida Jaspersen said that communication without words can be very important in a diverse and multi-lingual world.

“Since we can’t assume that our audience is completely literate — like, there’s multiple different languages that could be going on — its easier to communicate in our universal language. Everybody understands body language, and while there are different particulars in each culture, there’s also pretty universal ones, like a happy face versus a very angry face and things like that.

“And we can also use, like the way that a movie uses different camera shots, different colors, different lighting, we use all those things to communicate our story. And we try to make them dramatic and exciting like comics are. Because there are exciting stories that happen in the Bible.”

The artists created about 50 stories, each two pages of illustrations, to send to Zambia. For the Vietnam Project, many more are on their way.

To help tackle the project, 10 additional artists were added to the team, working to push out as many illustrations as possible.

Many of the artists work in the basement of Sweet Haven Tonics in a donated space.

As a studio art major at Bethany Lutheran College, Maida Jaspersen jumped at the opportunity when she was presented with the idea of helping communicate Bible stories without the need for words.

“I was so excited,” Maida Jaspersen said. “We met with this guy named Terry Schultz, and he described this whole thing, and I remember I was sitting next to (fellow BLC artist) Abby (Skorenkyi), and both of us were like, yes, let’s do it, here am I, send me. It was very exciting. And then slowly, more and more people were added.

“Our first meeting was, like, on my porch, and we divvied up what stories people wanted to do for the first couple ones. It was like a football draft. And things kind of evolved from there.”

When it comes to the process of creating a Bible story comic for people across the world, each artist has their own approach.

“We all kind of do it differently,” artist Faith Belt said. “Generally, we get the specific story and the passages it comes from, we read it, we might do a little sketching as we read. We also have a commentary that we look at as we read for reference, Franzmann’s Commentary, and that helps narrow down what our emphasis is. Because we’re only limited to three or four different panels. Then we do thumbnails after reading the commentary, then we draft it — we use different mediums, some of us use ink, some of us do it digital or pencil — we send that draft in, get feed back.

“We have (BLC professors) Jason (Jaspersen) and Andy Overn and Terry Schultz look at them,” Belt said, “And they basically say ‘these are the things that are working, good job, but these are the things that need to be changed.’ Sometimes culturally there are things that need to be changed, where sometimes things that would be fine here might not be understood in another country. And we need guidance in when to change things like that.”

“We have two finished products for every illustration,” Maida Jaspersen said. “There’s a full color completely finished comic, and then there’s a coloring page version. So Sunday school students, and we’ve heard seminary students, pastors, everyone in the congregation take part and color. And that helps you spend some time with the story, so you can notice some things that the artist added that maybe you didn’t notice while you were teaching.”

One such detail comes from Maida Jaspersen’s illustration of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. The two-page comic is bordered by flowers that turn from red to white to red again, symbolizing the wine running out and then being refilled.

“I think such details come, for me, come while I’m working,” Maida Jaspersen said. “That story was depicting the Wedding at Cana, so I wanted it to feel like a wedding. I wanted it to feel joyous and beautiful. So I incorporated flowers around the border to make it feel a little special. And you know, I was confronted with what color are these flowers as I was sketching them. I was looking up flowers specific to that region, and I realized there’s quite a few red flowers, maybe I could use that to signify the wine that’s so important to the story. I didn’t have that planned out ahead of time, it wasn’t in the commentary, but a lot of decision making happens while you’re moving the pencil on the paper.”

Jason Jaspersen said often those in the United States were more sensitive to cultural differences than the audience receiving them.

“When we talk about this in America, people are very curious to know ‘what about skin color or traditional clothing,’ things like that,” he said. “But, according to Terry, when he’s out in the field, he’s asking these questions, like in Zambia, should Jesus be white? Or should he look middle eastern? And they said ‘well nobody would recognize him!’ So we’ve got this really interesting situation where we want to be more sensitive than they want to receive. Same thing in Vietnam. So what we’ve settled on is lets just be historically faithful to middle eastern culture and middle eastern dress, so we’re not trying to make them look like the people we’re serving.”

Looking to the future, it seems that more and more areas of the world are looking for the universal communication that these artists are providing.

Jason Jaspersen mentioned such an opportunity.

“I just got an email that suggests that Sudanese refugees are the next target,” Jason Jaspersen said. “We’re at one end of the network. We’re the group making the work, and at the other end, people are receiving the work. But in between, there’s Terry, there’s WELS multi-language productions, so there’s this very important middle that connects these worlds, and they do have intentions for the future I think.”

“I think Terry’ really excited about continuing to push this more and more, and he has the connections to make that happen,” Maida Jaspersen added. “So I foresee it happening for a while.”


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