Sculpture Prof. Andrew Kosorok certainly has his hands full for the next three years, making representations of the names of God -- all 99 of them.
Having gained an interest in Islam after the Sept. 11 attacks, Kosorok found many parallels between his Mormon faith and Islam. Islam's traditional 99 names for God -- the Provider, the Compassionate, etc. -- inspired him to dive deeper into Islamic theology.
Kosorok, who teaches at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, aims to produce one glass sculpture for each of the 99 names, and one final piece to represent all the names together -- 100 installations in all. So far, he has finished seven pieces. Five are in production, and 13 others are planned by year's end.
Q Where did the inspiration for the installation come from?
A There were a number of instances of vandalism against Muslims here in Utah after 9/11. A Mormon leader gave a number of speeches where he stated that Islam was a spiritual sibling to LDS Christianity [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. I thought this was an interesting thing for a Mormon leader to say. So I started reading a little bit.
Q How long do you think it will take to finish?
A It's designed to take three years. Originally, I was just going to do it in a couple of months. Ignorance is a wonderful thing because you have absolutely no burdens of responsibility or knowledge. As soon as you open the door and start learning, you realize how much there is out there and how much you don't know.
Q Why did you choose to focus on the 99 names?
A I thought that they were a path through which I could explore another faith. But I also felt it could enhance my understanding about my own faith. When my research on the names mentions things I'm not familiar with, I do additional research on that part.
Q Where are you getting support for your research?
A SunniPath, an online Islamic academy in Jordan, had decided to add a class on the names but hadn't told anybody. When they got my e-mail, they figured that it was a sign to help me out. They gave me a scholarship to study theology and, in particular, the names.
Q What has studying the names taught you about your own religion?
A I found that the names are designed to help you focus your prayers, specifically your gratitude and beseeching. And when I applied that to my own prayers, it was like opening a door that I never knew existed. I was able to express the gratitude that I felt even more fully. It helped give more focus to my own prayers and helped me pray with more precision.
Q Does being an "outsider" to Islam help or hinder your work?
A When you are an outsider, your ignorance is easily forgiven and people take the time to explain when I'm incorrect. They appreciate that I've tried to learn. So I think it's helped quite a bit. I know that since I'm only human, I probably screw up. But I hope people understand that I'm honestly trying.
Q Islam, of course, prohibits depictions or images of human figures such as the Prophet Muhammad or God. How do you artistically represent a divine trait such as "love" or "compassion" in glass?
A One of the things that I was told by a sheik in Pakistan in an e-mail was that I needed to take my time and respond to what God was telling me. He said that he understood that I was not of his faith, but that I had to take this seriously and that God would help me. So I try really hard to open my mind and respond to the nudges and directions I get. I start by doing some rough sketches and learning as much as I can about that particular trait, how it historically has been addressed. I try to use images that have been used in traditional art to represent particular names, like the eight-pointed star or geometric figures.
Q What will happen to the pieces at the end?
A There are three main points of the project. The first is to leave a record of my own education -- trying to heal my own ignorance. Second is to share that with other people. And third is to let the Islamic world know that Americans and others are really interested. So, with that in mind, I would prefer the sculptures go out everywhere. I would like them to be displayed at one point with all 100, but after that, I would prefer that each individual one would go to an individual home.