American Convert finds challenge in making art
When not working as a welder in a local manufacturing firm, Eric Wenger works in his private sculpture studio. Wenger, a Muslim of only two years, has challenged himself to re-invent his sculpture style.
Raised in southeast Minnesota and trained as a sculptor at the University of Wisconsin, Wenger says the biggest challenge he has faced since deciding to become Muslim has been finding examples of what is considered Islamically acceptable art.
Wenger explains that at the time he considered converting to Islam, many well meaning Muslims attempted to sugar coat the issues regarding Islamic standards of art. In particular were the Islamic laws forbidding images. He was reassured that all he would have to do in his large neo-expressionist human figures would be to maintain the faceless shapes he was already producing.
As a neo-expressionist this was not really an issue to Wenger, since his work was without the defined features of a face. However after embracing Islam and studying the subject of Islamic guidelines associated with sculpture further, he discovered that his pre-Islamic work was far from appropriate within the Islamic framework. This realization led Wenger to take drastic steps.
In the early spring of 1999, Wenger collected over 25 of his prints and woodcuts along with several sculptures and destroyed them in his back yard, while his family watched in shock. Wenger explained that his action was based on a new understanding of the Islamic guidelines and his new understanding of the punishment for being a creator of images.
This began a new phase of Wenger's work. Working from the Islamic framework, Wenger once again challenged himself to define sculpture and metalwork. Initially Wenger worked with human torsos and portions of the human body, such as the human eye or human hand. Slowly, over a few months, Wenger's work changed again to that of experimentation with the Arabic language.
Wenger has depended on the recitation of Qur'an for his inspiration. When he hears a phrase that has a meaning that he likes, he often asks someone to write it in Arabic. He explains that he has no training in Arabic writing: "I just see pretty forms, I don't really see letters," says Wenger. During this phase, Wenger worked with forged steel, which he produced in his shop on his blacksmith's forge.
Says Wenger, "Trying to find [Arabic] words that are interesting to look at and having significant meaning has been a challenge." The work was limiting and, though appealing to some, didn't have the artistic challenge he was looking for. Wenger says that his work has to be pleasing to the eye, since most people looking at it won't recognize it as Arabic.
After months of experimentation, Wenger developed his most recent calligraphic work using sheets of steel. "This is a new way of shaping metal that I've never done before," explains Wenger. The work is like nothing found in the United States. It is a merging of the Western abstract art and that of Arabic calligraphy.
Sometimes the individual Arabic letters can be easily recognized, as seen in his work "Ya Rab", or it can take on a more abstract form such as is found with "Ya Rab2".
Says Wenger, "I had been working with wall reliefs for a long time, and now I am doing three-dimensional sculpture." Wenger explains that his current work has allowed him to "return to 3-D designing and thinking."
"I don't work from calligraphy since I need to be able to design as I create. So I use basic Arabic as my base," says Wenger.
Wenger not only works with steel, but also other metals such as copper, brass and bronze. He explains that steel has allowed him to experiment more than with nonferrous metals.
You won't find Wenger's work in any art gallery yet. At present his work is only available through the Internet at his homepage (www.angelfire.com/sd/SculptorEW). Wenger hopes that in the near future work like his will begin to be recognized by Muslims as worthy examples of contemporary Islamic art. He also hopes Americans will begin to recognize that Islamic art is different from Orientalist figurative art of Persian or other Muslim dominated areas. Wenger says too often museums and public collections mislabel art as Islamic, solely due to the fact that it comes from a country that is predominated by Islam. He feels the problem lies, in part, with the fact that museums and art historians have not taken the time to learn what the Islamic guidelines are for art. This has led to museums and art historians perpetuating the misrepresentation of Islam's view of figurative art.