David Hooker pulled a strand of hair from the clump of dust that had been dumped out of a vacuum bag. Some may find it unpalatable, he said, but in his eyes, it isn't dirty or gross. It's art.
The associate art professor at Wheaton College has taken the term "dust to dust" in its most literal sense. In a long and arduous process, Hooker has been sifting the debris, collected by the college's custodial staff, over a 5-foot-tall, ceramic sculpture of the crucified body of Jesus Christ.
The dust-covered sculpture symbolizes death and resurrection, said Hooker, 44, of Winfield.
"Literally, this dirt contains skin cells from the community. The idea is that our bodies are now connected to the body of Christ," he said. "At first, some might find it disgusting, or even sacrilegious, but I hope people can get past that and see the meaning behind it."
The sculpture will be included in a 27-piece collection that will debut at the college's Biblical and Theological Studies department at the Billy Graham Center on April 22. Among the paintings, photographs and etchings, Hooker's sculpture will be one of the more unusual, said Jeffrey Greenman, Associate Dean of Biblical and Theological Studies.
"I think it's bold and creative and controversial to a certain extent. If you want a picture of a very suburban, acceptable Jesus, this will not be it," he said. "It's not for shock value or disrespect. I would hope people will understand it in its context and eventually appreciate the message behind it."
In his studio, Hooker has collected 11 vacuum bags to be used on the piece, which will simply be called, "Corpus."
It is not a quick process. Hooker has to cover the sculpture with acrylic gel and then sift dust over it. It takes a day to dry before he can add another layer, eventually adding about five coats to the piece.
In a way, the dust represents "our sins or uncleanliness," he said. "It's our collective dust."
Hooker searched meticulously for the right corpus. He didn't want a brand new one, but rather one with a past, he said. He bought this one for about $4,000 from a vestments business that salvages and resells items from old churches. It's from a Catholic church, Hooker said, guessing it's age was "less than 100 but older than 50."
Hooker hopes those who see the sculpture will keep coming back to it.
"There's a difference between knowing something and understanding it," he said. "As you spend time with something day after day, its meaning will reveal itself over time."
Those who see the art will have to judge it for themselves, said Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College. He hopes they'll see the college's message of "our need for God's grace, and that means being honest about our own failings."
"I think good art, or the best art, always provokes a response," he said. "I think most people, when they see this, will understand there are lot of things that are disappointing and even dirty about us and see the Christian message that God loves us in spite of our sins."
The collection, which is meant to tell the biblical story of salvation from creation to Christ, will occupy the fifth floor of the Billy Graham Center, which the college recently renovated.
The rest of the collection will feature work from other staff, including photographs and paintings. It will also include a large, color map of Jerusalem from 1588 and a piece of calfskin vellum with medieval text with unknown origin. It will be free and open to the public.