South Dakota artist Mark McGinnis spent the '80s exploring political and social issues in his work, in search of a doable code for living, but he wasn't finding any answers. So he turned to religion. Embarking on a personal journey based on painstaking research, McGinnis sought to decipher the myriad cultural definitions of morality and faith.
The result is Designs of Faith, an eight-year painting and essay project on display at the Mizel Museum of Judaica through September. Narrowed in scope to twelve religions in all -- four each of Eastern, Western and tribal faiths -- the series looks to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i faith, as well as Aboriginal, Hopi, Yoruban and Inuit belief systems, for answers, using multicultural visual imagery and a remarkable stretch of the artist's imagination. Even if you're not religious yourself, it's a fascinating study that's both scholarly and visually stunning, borrowing freely from each culture's iconography and imagery.
While most of his choices fell together for more or less obvious reasons, McGinnis found tribal creeds the hardest to choose from. "Choosing was so subjective -- there's just such a wonderful variety out there," he says. He chose the Aboriginal and Hopi religions on the strength of the bits and pieces he already knew about them. "And I knew I wanted to do something from Africa: Because so many African-Americans trace their origins to the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, I decided I wanted a better understanding of that." And personal experience during the harsh South Dakota winters of the late '90s drove him to explore Inuit beliefs: "I wondered what kind of faith would develop when people were in a constant struggle with the environment to that degree. I learned that some of it is quite beautiful, some is quite frightening."
One other thing McGinnis learned: People are not all alike under the skin. "There were no real total similarities between religions," he says. "You always hear about the Golden Rule, and I guess that turns up a lot, at least in a wishy-washy way. But in my tribal studies, I found the Golden Rule was simply not there. In tribal societies, where emphasis is placed on the group rather than on the self -- the whole idea of 'Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself' would be considered so egotistical in the first place."
On the other hand, most of the religions could be boiled down to basic tenets. "At a certain point of study, almost all religions seem to reach some kind of conclusion that God can be found in anything," McGinnis observes. "Basically, the essence of God is found in all creation, and therefore, there's a sense of sacredness in everything. And the only way to come to a sense of true happiness is to get completely out of oneself -- that's a pinnacle to reach in many religions."
Even completed, the project continues to inspire McGinnis. It's not only led him on a path to other projects based on elders and cultural stories of animal wisdom, but it's also given him more concrete guidance in his personal life. "I've been pretty serious about being Buddhist," he admits. "I found the teachings to be so gentle and so beautiful, so inclusive of how to truly lead a good life with others and with yourself. It's a wonderful way to try to structure your behavior.
"One thing I realized was that when I was creating the project, basically the project was re-creating me. It had a wonderful impact on the direction of my art. I'm glad something in my head told me to do it."