By Syd Hielema and Norm Matheis
2004, hardcover + dust jacket, 64 pages, $22.00
The idea for Witness had been in Norman Matheis's head for years before he actually put his brush to the easel. When he did begin to paint, it was because he was inspired by "heroes of faith" like those named in Hebrews 11. He believed that putting a face to these heroes might inspire others--believers and unbelievers--to serve the Lord and Maker of the universe.
Matheis began the paintings for this book in 2002, with no definite plans for what to do with them. "I was simply enjoying myself and thought I'd see what happened," he says. As he does for all of his paintings, Matheis spent a great deal of time trying to understand each subject before he began painting.
"I read each story a few times--actually a few hundred times," he says, "looking for clues to what the person would look like." Some of the faces came to him right away. Some came from sketches he had made earlier. Some were redrawn a couple of times. Some he thinks he might do a bit differently if he were starting over. His goal was to create characters that viewers could connect with and so feel a kinship with their lives of faith and struggle.
Drawing from his extensive knowledge of art history and his unflagging review of art magazines, Matheis's characters are people that inhabit both the time in which they lived and that engage modern reader-viewers.
Matheis knew from the start that he wanted text to accompany his paintings. He approached Syd Hielema after hearing him preach several times. Matheis wanted someone who shared his understanding of Scripture to write pieces that would capture the character of the people he painted. Together Matheis and Hielema selected ten Old Testament, ten New Testament, and ten more contemporary "witnesses."
Using the first person voice to tell each story helps accomplish Matheis's goal of making these biblical characters real. But it was not a conscious decision at first.
"Out of the first ten I wrote, nine were in the third person and only one in the first person," says Hielema. But they soon agreed that using the first person made it easier to identify with the person in the painting.
"Doing so raises real questions of appropriateness, though," Hielema says, feeling the burden of putting words in the characters' mouths. To deal with this problem he tried to use other parts of Scripture to corroborate what was happening in his short descriptive vignettes.
"There is a striking difference between modern literature and Scripture in that literature puts you inside a character. The Bible rarely does that," Hielema says. But because people have become accustomed to that approach, Hielema and Matheis decided to be faithful to the text and yet adapt to today's expectations in order to reach readers.
Like Matheis, Hielema hopes the book will be a devotional resource for many, used by children as well as adults.