Beneath an angry sky, Moses prepares to lead the Israelites to safety through the towering waves of the Red Sea.
Noah looks out over the landscape as elephants, cheetahs and antelope walk in pairs to the ark he has built. Adam and Eve emerge from the foliage of a vivid and vibrant Garden of Eden.
The stories are some of the most familiar in all of the Bible. And in artist Edward Patterson’s plans, each will come to life in stunning detail and color.
Patterson has interpreted some of Christianity’s most iconic images in a series of paintings for a Center Grove area church. His personal mission to depict 12 scenes from the Bible, with the help of Southland Community Church members and anyone else interested in learning to paint.
When all 12 paintings are finished, the pieces will hang in the hallways leading to the church sanctuary. The congregation will be able to tour from the Garden of Eden to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ every Sunday.
“We’ll be telling the story of the Bible through these paintings,” he said. “I want a certain wow factor with them when they’re done. You’re going to associate what you see here with these paintings, and they need to be very dynamic.”
Patterson has broken the project into halves. The first six paintings will depict scenes from the Old Testament.
Noah leads pairs of animals into his ark in one, while Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to God in another. Moses appears in two works — the parting of the Red Sea and the presentation of the Ten Commandments.
New Testament stories include the Nativity, Jesus walking on water and the Last Supper.
“It’s all the common, big Bible stories. People will be able to walk around the sanctuary there and see all of them,” he said.
Patterson has been working in art since he was a teenager, when he would set up a pad on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis and offer to draw caricatures to passers-by.
‘I saw the sign’
He became more serious about art 20 years ago, focusing his work on classically realistic portraits. A man of faith, he was drawn to religious scenes and finally began taking inspiration directly from the Bible.
In 2012, he decided to attempt a large-scale series of biblical scenes. In order to do so, he needed to partner with a church because his studio in Nashville wasn’t large enough to hold the 6-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide paintings.
Patterson traveled to churches throughout central Indiana to offer his services in exchange for a place to work. But he was turned away by each church he tried.
The frustration started to mount. No matter how much he emphasized that this was a volunteer effort to beautify the church, no one seemed interested.
When he passed by Southland Community Church on the way home from another rejection did he decide to try one more time.
“I was really feeling sorry for myself. But as I drove by, I saw the sign. I had my photographs with me and walked in to talk to the minister,” Patterson said.
Pastor Steve Schellin was skeptical at first, as well. Pastors are often presented with well-meaning ideas and schemes that just don’t work with their congregation, and Schellin was prepared to turn down yet another request.
“I thought there had to be a catch. But I was about to start a sermon series about the chronological story of the Bible. I thought, ‘This would come together with it perfectly,’” he said. “I offered to talk to our elders about it, and they were excited about it.”
The deal was that Southland could have the paintings, free of charge, when the project was finished. But in return, the church would provide a space where Patterson could work and help advertise to the congregation that he needed volunteers to help paint.
Patterson, a Center Grove area resident, doesn’t attend church at Southland Community Church. But he found a partner in his project that has proved beneficial for both sides.
“We want the arts to be used as an outreach to our community. We want to be able to express God’s grace through the arts, whether it’s music or painting. This is a perfect thing for us,” Schellin said.
Since the project started last year, Patterson has about 15 people who have come to help on the project. Many have been first-time artists whom Patterson is teaching to paint.
His technique is one he developed over his career.
“I call it strip-painting, and I developed it myself. It’s very detailed, meticulous work,” he said.
Patterson starts with an idea for a scene. He hires models and costumes them in biblical garb, using them to stage his vision for the Bible stories in landscapes around Indiana.
After taking photographs of the scene, he’ll use his computer to add colors, weather effects and animals that he can’t re-create locally.
Once it looks the way he wants, Patterson blows up the photograph to painting size. He breaks the photographs down into sections and cuts them into vertical strips.
Those strips are taped across the canvas, ready for people to work on.
“Rather than doing the whole painting at once, we’re painting one strip at a time. You lift it up, paint underneath the strip, and go across the entire panel,” he said.
The technique is particularly effective with beginning artists. Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexity of the scene, people find individual strips of painting much more manageable, Patterson said.
Sylvia Thomas had never painted before when she heard about Patterson’s project. She and her husband attended a meeting at the church and learned about the process of meticulously putting the artwork together.
“It took me a while to get into it. But once I felt comfortable with it, I really started enjoying going in once a week to paint,” she said.
Each piece takes up to 400 hours to complete, Patterson said. That has discouraged some people from sticking with the project, as they don’t see much progress being made.
But there’s value in that kind of slow development, Thomas said.
“It’s not the kind of project that’s done in just a few hours. If you need instant gratification, this is not it,” she said. “I’m just a small part of the grand project overall, and it’s going to take a few years before we get all 12 of the paintings done.”
Patterson works at the church every week, though most people come to help on Wednesdayd and Thursdays. He is always looking for new volunteers. There is no age limit to participate. Patterson has had painters as young as 8 and those in their late 80s.
“I can teach anybody, and I’m doing it. In a relatively short amount of time, they can be doing great works all by themselves. That’s part of my payback,” he said. “I’m not here to hog my knowledge.”
Officials at Southland have been open to Patterson’s creativity. Their only request is that the scenes follow as closely to Scripture as possible, Schellin said.
When the entire project is finished, Schellin anticipates a community open house to display the work.
More so, the towering images of the Bible will exist at Southland for many years.
“For generations to follow, kids will look up and equate what they read in the Bible with these paintings. This is what they’ll see when they hear those stories,” Patterson said. “These will be tremendous exhibits for the church.”