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Why a Wheaton College Professor Smeared Jesus in Human Dirt
Image: Photos courtesy of David JP Hooker
Why a Wheaton College Professor Smeared Jesus in Human Dirt

David Hooker has spent a lot of this Lent playing in the dirt—specifically the dirt of students at Wheaton College, Illinois, where Hooker has taught art for eight years. With help from the Christian college's custodians, he's collected the hair, skin cells, nail clippings, and other ephemera vacuumed up in the dorms, then has ritually applied it to a 5-foot-tall corpus of Christ that he bought for $4,000 from a vestments company that resells de-commissioned vestments from churches. Titled Corpus, the dirt-covered Christ will be displayed in Wheaton's biblical and theological studies department next month.

Hooker spoke with CT managing editor Katelyn Beaty about why the piece is anything but sacrilegious, and how it provides a fitting meditation for Holy Week.

The most striking aspect of Corpus is obviously its use of human dirt—skin cells, dust, hairs, and fibers from Wheaton students. What was the inspiration?

My work has become increasingly focused on exploring the inherent properties of materials, especially materials that are very humble and often overlooked and discarded. Materials that are "mundane," not "artworthy." I try to find the beauty in them. I also like to think about the history of materials, the history of objects, the relationship between objects and memory, and the complex relationship between the sacred and the mundane.

I began thinking about dirt as a material for artwork about two years ago. I live in the suburbs, where people kind of fight a war against dirt. But I'm trained as a potter (MFA Ceramics) as well as an amateur gardener. So I see dirt as this wonderfully alive material.

Back when I was in college I had a summer where I actually worked selling vacuum cleaners door to door. This was before I thought about becoming an art major. It was there that I became aware of all the things that are in dirt one vacuums out of a household—all the skin cells and hair. I found that fascinating. I stored that little piece of information in my memory somewhere, and it has come back.

Did you use gloves?

I don't use gloves, although maybe I should?

To collect the dirt, I called Paul Dillon, head of custodial, and told him my idea. I wasn't sure what kind of response I would get, but he was immediately on board. He got 11 full vacuum bags for me. He even made sure to get them from different places from all over campus. I take the bags out 3-4 at a time and empty the contents into a big bin. I can see that the dirt is all slightly different in color and texture.

This is where the process takes on a ritual action. The dirt has to be applied in layers to make it adhere properly. For each layer I coat part of the figure with acrylic gel medium using a paintbrush. Then apply dirt while the gel is wet. Most of the time this involves putting handfuls of fibrous dirt into a flour sifter and sifting out the finer particles directly onto the figure. Occasionally I apply a layer by dabbing the fibrous part directly by hand (this assures hair particles are on the piece). Each layer has to dry overnight, then I use a dry brush to sweep away any dirt that isn't stuck, and start another layer. It should take about 5 layers to complete the piece. The most I can do at any time is about ½ of the figure, and that takes a solid 3-4 hours.

How did manually applying the dirt to Christ's body affect you? The process itself sounds very bodily.

Yes, that's really perceptive. I am not through with the process, but even getting as far as I have—and I'm about two-thirds of the way through—has been very taxing physically and spiritually. Last year I made a Lenten artwork for my church (AllSouls in Wheaton), and I was surprised at how draining it was to work on spiritually, even though it wasn't very taxing physically. I was very moody for most of Lent and Easter (my family bore the brunt of that, I am ashamed to say). The good part about that experience was that it prepared me for this experience in many ways. I have been much more open about my concerns and feelings, and have really tried to dwell in the Psalms during the process. Something about the extreme emotion there, both the negative and positive, has helped me tremendously.

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Why a Wheaton College Professor Smeared Jesus in Human Dirt