Long before an attention-seeking Florida pastor publicly burned Islam's holy book, artist Sandow Birk began wondering about the contents of the Quran, so much in the news after the Sept. 11 attacks but little known in Western culture.
The Florida incident generated violent response half-way around the world. Mr. Birk's musings generated an ongoing project to copy all of the book's chapters and surround them with paintings.
After the wars began in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was "so much American debate about Islam -- how threatening is it?" he said. He went to a bookstore and bought four English versions of the Quran and began to read them.
Mr. Birk, who grew up in Los Angeles, has been a lifelong surfer and has followed the waves across the world, including along the coasts of countries with large Muslim populations such as Morocco, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. During surfing trips, he investigated the culture, ate the food, toured the architecture including mosques, and heard the call to prayer.
"Public debate in the U.S. about Islam wasn't really reconciling with my experience of it," Mr. Birk said.
Five years ago, he began a series of paintings that combine the hand-written words of the Quran with gouache paintings of scenes from contemporary American life. Works completed as of December are in the exhibition "The Word of God: Sandow Birk's American Qur'an" at The Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side. A related symposium, ecumenical event and opening reception for an Islamic art exhibition at Michael Berger Gallery will take place this weekend.
Born in Ohio to Presbyterian parents but not brought up in a religious tradition, Mr. Birk doesn't ascribe to a particular belief. But the exploration of religion is not new to him. Earlier he spent five years creating works based upon "The Divine Comedy."
"I was completely immersed in Dante and Catholicism, and discovered things new to me [about that religion] as well." But by the completion "I was really kind of done with it."
Now he's moved to an even longer commitment. There are 114 chapters, or Suras, in the Quran and five years in he is about half-way done. He considers each chapter a separate artwork which, depending upon length of the text, may comprise between two and eight paintings.
The paintings remind of Persian miniatures and of Christian illuminated manuscripts, having a delicacy and refinement of image centered with panels containing the words of Mohammed. Border designs and text spacers are based upon those that appear in historic Qurans.
But these works have a contemporary jolt provided by the images juxtaposed with the text. These are drawn from everyday life -- a tractor trailer fills one page, a wedding another -- and Mr. Birk's experiences in particular, such as an underwater scene with scuba divers. The artist is also known for social critique, which seeps in as floating bodies left in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or Hispanic shoppers at a mini-mart painted with the image of Our Lady of Guadelupe.
Response to Mr. Birk's work by Muslims has been positive, he said. When some of the early paintings were exhibited in New York City, groups of Muslims visited as word got around. Before a similar show opened in Los Angeles, elders of a local mosque were "outraged," he said, but added that they hadn't personally seen the work.
"Once it was up, they were OK."
Mr. Birk said of the project, "I erased from my head everything I knew and approached it like a blank slate. If this is God sending a message, how do I read it in California today? God sent the rain down from the sky so we have food to eat. I get food from the supermarket. I didn't experience the story of Noah's ark, but I remember Katrina and New Orleans.
"The work is not illustration. It's not didactic. It's more like metaphor."
Asked about the apparent parallels to Christian biblical stories, Mr. Birk agreed.
"Absolutely. The remarkable thing is it's so familiar. You read it and you think 'What's the problem here?' It's Noah's ark and Moses parting the Red Sea. That's the first thing you notice -- it's very familiar."
That may be the major lesson of Mr. Birk's work and exhibition, something reflected in a related program at The Warhol last week, "The Word of God: Voices -- 30 Mosques in 30 Days: Tales From an American Ramadan Road Trip."
Brooklyn-based Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq traveled to 30 mosques in 30 states during the 30 days of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan last year. When they recounted parts of their trip with stories, photographs and video, the overall tone was travels across the U.S., not a culturally exotic exercise (www.30mosques.com).
"We don't see ourselves as activists," Mr. Ali said. "We're interested in telling authentic stories about Muslims in America."
Tom Sokolowski, former director of The Warhol, summed it up with the comment that they could have been visiting Christian or Jewish sites. Overall, the experience was Americana.
"Commonality" is the word used by Tresa Varner, museum staff member and co-curator of the Word of God series, the intent of which is to "create a place where we can reflect on religion in our lives."
Mr. Birk's exhibition is the first in a five-part Word of God series this year at The Warhol that explores the texts of major faiths through the eyes of contemporary artists. The exhibitions will be supplemented by programming to complement each by expanded discussion.
"Each artist will be presenting their conceptual focus on these texts," Ms. Varner said. "Sandow Birk is not Muslim. He's just meditating on his interpretation of the Quran. Helene Ayon [the next artist to be featured] was raised in a strict Orthodox Jewish family but is also a feminist. Max Gimblett is a practicing Zen Buddhist."
The remainder of the series will be: "The Word of God: Helene Aylon's The Liberation of G-d and The Unmentionable," May 8-June 26; "The Word of God: Chitra Ganesh," concerning Hindu myth and goddesses, July 9-Sept. 4; "The Word of God: Max Gimblett, Buddhanature," Sept. 17-Nov. 27; and "Word of God: Jeffery Valance," who created his own Bible, Dec. 3-Feb. 12.
"I've never read the Quran," Ms. Varner said. "I don't know much about Islam. This is as close as I'm ever going to get to the sacred text, to ask what are the connections between this and the text I was raised in.
"In the ongoing sensitive and factious debate between cultures, dialogue is the key."
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925. First Published April 13, 2011 4:00 AM