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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.

As you covered the corpus in dirt, was there a part of Jesus' body that struck you anew?

Yes, definitely. The most powerful moments for me have come while working on the feet and the sides of the torso. Hard to explain why those places stand out in particular, maybe because both are such sensitive and vulnerable parts of the body. Also the inner arms. The piece being so close to life-size makes those volumes seem very real.

Once when I was working on the feet, I had a flashback to the story from Luke of the woman anointing Jesus' feet with oil. I had to stop and think about that for a while.

How do you respond to comparisons of Corpus to other artwork that combine religious imagery with the profane—most famously Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, which depicted Mary using elephant dung and images from pornography? In what ways does Corpus fit and not fit such comparisons?

That is a great and a tough question. Certainly I see Corpus in dialogue with those pieces. But I also see it in dialogue with other contemporary artworks that combine religious imagery with the profane, or the mundane, in a more positive way. Can't we include in that dialog Anish Kapoor's Ascension, or Hawkinson'sPentecost, or even Laib's recent Pollen from Hazelnut? Ultimately I hope the piece will have a kind of redemptive quality that will keep it from being read as sarcastic or sacrilegious. I see it as redemptive. My intent is for the piece to be redemptive. I have to trust that.

How does Corpus speak to the dynamics at Wheaton specifically, being a Christian college in the Midwest, and the surrounding Wheaton suburb?

I guess the obvious answer to that is related to the dirt, which is specifically taken from the Wheaton College community. I really hope that the piece will be a real, tangible way to see how our community participates in both the death and resurrection of Christ. Tangible might be the key word here. While I love the college, I feel at times that things become very "heady" and abstract. While I love that, I don't want us to miss the very personal and real substance of the gospel. While I can't say I fully understand how real that substance is, I feel like sculpture is a good way to explore that notion.

Corpus was commissioned not by the art department in which you work, but rather the biblical and theological studies department. Why?

Really, PAC officially commissioned me. PAC is the President's Art Commission, a new committee that facilitates collecting and displaying art on campus. PAC got me in touch with Jeffrey Greenman, associate dean of the BiTh department. Jeff wanted new work for the new space BiTh was moving into, and he approached three of us from the art department.

Jeff and I talked about what I might make for the space. All of the work has a biblical theme. I wanted to get input from Jeff, as I was nervous about approaching anything theological on my own. After a couple of ideas, Jeff encouraged me to consider making a piece about the death and resurrection of Jesus. I was terrified. That is a subject I have never wanted to deal with. It is just too big for me. At first I thought there was no way I was going to be able to do that.

But, after a few days, I begin to see how some ideas I was exploring were coming together: my interest in the history of objects, my love of the communion of saints, my interest in working with mundane, overlooked materials, my desire to incorporate ritual into my artistic process. The core idea for Corpus began to suggest itself to me.

How do you anticipate that the Wheaton community will respond to the piece when it debuts April 22?

Well, the work has received attention in the college newspaper and a recent chapel message. Members of the community are being educated about the piece, about the process, and about the ideas behind it. This is great. At the same time, this means people are already forming their responses to the piece, which is a bit unfortunate. The piece isn't up yet. It's not even finished yet. I hope that the piece will still have the power and presence to surprise people. Again, this goes to that earlier comment about things becoming abstract instead of tangible.

It strikes me that Corpus presents a meditation for Good Friday: that Christ took on upon his body our humanity in all its mess and dirt. In what ways is the piece also a meditation for Easter Sunday?

A verse that come to my mind is from II Corinthians: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." I think that verse is somehow represented by the piece. It is both a "Good Friday" and an "Easter Sunday" verse. I really hope the "Easter Sunday" part of the piece will manifest itself. Part of that will require the viewer to begin to contemplate on the skin cells and hair in a positive way. To think of our community grafted into Christ's body, and also grafted in with the body of the Communion of Saints (that's where the history of the piece comes in, and why I didn't want a new corpus). That's where the hope comes in.

Also, I have removed the corpus from the cross. It will "float" just in front of the wall. While it maintains the pose of crucifixion, I hope there will be a hint in that pose of ascension to it as well. While ascension is not technically an "Easter Sunday" topic, it is an Easter season one.

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Why a Wheaton College Professor Smeared Jesus in Human Dirt