Beauty in Tension: A Conversation with Alabaster Co
In an age of innovative media and progressive design, two artists have re-imagined how the Bible is held, read and experienced. The Alabaster Co is a new project by recent college graduates Bryan and Brian Chung (no relation), who are exploring the tension of faith, art and beauty. In just a few months, they've raised over $60k on Kickstarter, and successfully launched on Amazon.
The following is from a conversation with Bryan about his inspiration for the Alabaster Bible, as well as his insights on art, beauty and creative individuals.
Bryan: The idea began in my senior year at USC (2016). I was in the arts community and heavily involved with a campus ministry, but the two realms never interacted. God wasn’t really involved in my experience with creativity, and I wanted to give Him a more tangible role. We wanted to create a conversation around art, creativity and faith, and a Biblical text felt like the right place to start.
A BEAUTIFUL BIBLE
Our culture is becoming so visual. Instead of shying away from that, we asked, “What would it look like to integrate high quality images – ones that aren’t just telling a story, but are making you think or are making you respond in some way – with the Biblical text?" That question was interesting for us and we wanted to explore it. Right after graduating, we began.
WHAT IS BEAUTIFUL?
Author James Chuong writes that each generation asks a sort of spiritual question, through which the church can reveal Jesus. Chuong believes "What is beautiful?" is the next question. How do we depict Jesus as beautiful? What does 'beauty' mean? The word is infamously illusive to us, and we don’t know how to define it. I think to me, if I could make a small little dent in it, it's depicting the entirety of whatever Jesus is in an honest way. ‘Beauty' is willing to sort of lay it all out. I think Alabaster is based on that premise — laying out our entire livelihood.
In addition to your role at Alabaster, you're a campus minister at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA. What have you observed in both secular and Christian artists?
For many Christians, art isn’t coming out of who they are, but as a byproduct of who they are. In Western Christian culture especially, expression has to be positive and uplifting. But there’s so much more to our faith than the good parts, right? With Alabaster, we wanted to explore communicating how our journey as Christians isn’t necessarily always good. Art is a vessel for people to be honest and vulnerable in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t. If you’re a painter, for example, you can paint a range of emotions that are impossible to communicate otherwise.
Artists are notoriously known as crazy, wild, sometimes depressive people. But we instinctively appreciate their art for being honest, and we can tell they are bringing their true self to the table. I want to see the entirety of Christian art (though I don’t like calling it that) be ok with that same range of emotions.
If you look at Alabaster, we have images of Jesus as a triumphant and victorious God, but we also have the tension of Jesus’ crucifixion. We asked, “How do we depict His death in an honest way?" We could just say, "Well, He’s going to rise,” but no – He was crucified first.
ON PRAYER IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS
We do something called listening prayer. With people, it can look like asking God for a word or image. With the creative process, it looks like waiting for the Holy Spirit’s direction. It’s interesting, because each image was different. Part of the process was purely hearing from the Lord and following intuition. Some of it was more analytically created, according to our design experience.
Was this type of prayer new, or familiar, for you in the creative process?
The intuition and the hearing prayer, I would say that’s more natural to the type of person I am. My business partner Brian is definitely more of the logical, design-oriented person. It was good to have that balance, I think.
SACRIFICE, EXCELLENCE & WORSHIP
This project is a culmination of skill and dedication. Is excellent worship costly?
There’s nothing truly utilitarian about art. It’s not like you get a huge return on creativity. You’re giving of yourself because you want to, not because of the return you’re going to get.
There’s this interesting book The Gift by Lewis Hyde, about arts and the economy. He talks about how the arts live in a gift economy and don’t work in the real economy. He suggests that the arts need to operate on this 'gift level’, and it has to go both ways. You have to be willing to both give your art as a gift, and receive it as a gift. That’s kind of how it is, and I think that’s costly. In the grand scheme of things, I think that can also a metaphor for who God is. I think of Luke 15, the father who is extravagantly giving to his son who is coming back. That’s costly.
‘ART FOR ART’S SAKE’ VS. ‘SUPPLY AND DEMAND'
Does selling your art limit your freedom of self-expression?
You’re always fighting that tension - What do I want to put in there as self-expression? It’s just a battle you fight. I think as artists you have an intuition of what you feel like is right, and sometimes you have to just go with it. Some of our images are pretty straight-forward, and some of them are not going to make sense on the first pass.
That’s kind of the point though, right? There’s a good mix of both the abstract and concrete.
But at the end of the day, it’s about your story. Your story trumps all. This is a story we wanted to tell. We wanted to explore the intersection of art, beauty and faith, and we wanted to do it through the Biblical text – that was our story. We could talk about marketing, or the analytics of things, but I think it always comes back to the story you’re trying to tell. People want your story.
THE BEAUTY IN TENSION
You continue to use the word “tension" – Christ’s triumph vs. death, giving vs. receiving, self-expression vs. public demand. How does the concept of tension fit into your big picture?
I’m a man of tension! Above all, I want to create good culture. I ask myself, "How do we create good and beautiful culture?" The Bible starts with the garden of Eden and ends in Revelation with the city. The city is full of good culture – there’s creativity and collaboration. Obviously I want to work towards that first and foremost.
On the other hand, we have to face the realities of today. There’s a passage in John where Jesus just cries with Mary. If we’re creating imagery about Jesus’ tears without any immediate solution, we can be okay with that. There’s nothing happy or seemingly redemptive about that moment, but it’s part of the redemptive narrative.
I want to be okay with living in both realms – the optimistic, yet present. And I think art can live in both of those things.