Mennonite Weekly Review Logo Mennonite World Review

Oct. 17, 2005 issue

Art casts unusual light on conservative culture

'Pop-Mennonite' displayed in Goshen

By Jodi H. Beyeler Goshen College

GOSHEN, Ind. — Through often surprising drawings and paintings that juxtapose images of traditional Mennonite culture with images from American popular culture, artist Don Swartzentruber has a lot to say about his upbringing.

"Rembrandt Mennonites on Holiday" is an oil painting showing a conservative Mennonite farm family who are visited by the spirits of 17th-century Mennonite visitors from Amsterdam — friends of the famous artist Rembrandt.

“Rembrandt Mennonites on Holiday” is an oil painting showing a conservative Mennonite farm family who are visited by the spirits of 17th-century Mennonite visitors from Amsterdam — friends of the famous artist Rembrandt.

Swartzentruber grew up in a conservative Mennonite church in Delaware immersed in a religious culture that valued strict separation from popular society, with rigid rules surrounding proper attire, entertainment, modes of transportation, church attendance and modern conveniences.

“A myriad of culture issues — from women’s head coverings to the legitimacy of a wedding ring to television ownership — has echoed through my childhood formation,” he said.

The result is the premiere of the exhibit “Pop-Mennonite,” which opened Oct. 16 in the Goshen College Library Gallery and will run through Dec. 9.

The exhibit includes oil paintings, drawings and collages of comic books and old church bulletins that portray Disney characters and Old Order Mennonite subjects juxtaposed to prompt viewers to consider ways that American popular culture has had an impact on Mennonite culture. An audio accompaniment, which blends preaching and traditional Mennonite music selections, is available in the gallery.

When Swartzentruber was 5, his father was excommunicated from the church. The rejection and judgment in that experience was passed from one generation to the next — eventually leading him to “step outside of the Mennonite world enough to be critical,” Swartzentruber said.

Swartzentruber — a descendant of the first Amish bishop in the United States — has come to realize that the intentions behind the excommunication of his father weren’t malicious.

“I have great respect and affection for the conservative Mennonite community,” he said. “In many regards I will always be Mennonite.”

As a young adult, Swartzentruber left his Mennonite community in Delaware to study animation under a Disney artist, whose influences can now be seen in “Pop-Mennonite.” He studied ethics for a semester at Rosedale Bible College, a conservative Mennonite school in Ohio, and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Grace College and a master of fine arts degree from Vermont College of Norwich University.

Swartzentruber, now a resident of Winona Lake, has taught art at Grace College, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and Warsaw High School.

Goshen history professor John D. Roth, a member of the Mennonite-Amish Museum Committee, said he hopes visitors will spend time reflecting on the descriptive captions Swartzentruber provides for the images.

“Behind the initial surprise of the visual image is a deep appreciation for the core values of the Mennonite tradition, and a thoughtful critique of how easily these convictions can be cheapened or assimilated by pop culture,” Roth said.

Swartzentruber hopes that Mennonite audiences ask, “How has [the church’s assimilation into pop culture] been a positive experience, and where have we given up traditions for something far less valuable?”

The exhibit is also a challenge to people outside the Mennonite tradition.

“Our culture at large is absorbed in triviality,” Swartzentruber said. “Most materialistic Americans are keeping scores with large mortgage payments and wide-screen televisions. What can we learn about faith and community from a critique of conservative Mennonite culture?”

Conservative Mennonites, he said, have attempted to make all daily activities and rituals holy.

“Despite some extremism, [is] the overall objective honorable and worthy of consideration?” he asked.

The exhibit is sponsored by the Mennonite-Amish Museum Committee, the Mennonite Historical Library and the Indiana Arts Commission.

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