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Praise the Lord and pass the mustard.

Photographer finds God is still for sale by a highway near you

One day, in Chicago, Sam Fentress saw a car with an incongruous cross bolted to the roof. Being a photographer, he quickly took a photo, but the picture "languished on a contact sheet" for a year or more.

It also languished in his mind. Other expressions of public piety began to intrude on his attention in the late 1970s, so he started taking other pictures. They became the "Signs of Jesus" series of photographs. They are on exhibition at the O.K. Harris Gallery in New York until April 24.

An urban billboard announces:

God is like Coke: He's the real thing.

God is like Pan Am: He makes the going great. ...

God is like Tide: He gets the stains out that others leave behind.

God is like-VO-5 hair spary: He holds through all kinds of weather. ...

God is like Alka Seltzer: Try him, you'll like him.

And more of the same. Behind the billboard is a building with a big sign, "Furniture Factory Outlet World." God and mammon jousting for attention.

In front of factories or in roadside cornfields, selling God is as American as apple pie. Fentress has chased the signs across 30 states. His photos tell of the human hankering to persuade others to think as we do.

As the gallery press release puts it, "In a weird mix of evangelical brio and Madison Avenue savvy, American businessmen, homeowners and preachers have colored the landscape with their sometimes fiery, sometimes gentle messages of salvation."

Although born in Detroit, Fentress grew up in that other mecca or popular culture, Nashville. He went to Princeton to be a lawyer but took an optional course in photography, which immediately torpedoed his legal career. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. He taught for a while. Hew now photographs architecture for a living.

But along the way, on the backk roads of America, he was struck by the signs of the times. Flannery O'Connor said of the South that while it may not be Christ-centered, it certainly is Christ-haunted. This applies to the entire country, says Fentress.

Although he does not search for the sign-writers (many are hit-and-run artists), he has met many of the God-haunted. Sometimes "they'll come out to see if I'm saved," he says.

At B.E. Salee's Jesus Way Goat Corral in Tennessee, Fentress' wife had to stay in the car because of the unambiguous sign by the driveway: "Holiness or hell. Within these confines is holy ground. Please put on some clothes and cover your nakedness. Before entering, women of all ages arrayed in pants, shorts or dresses that expose the knee not admitted. Repent or perish!"

Salee, who raised "stud goats," allowed Fentress to photograph the slogans on his VW van, the signs nailed to trees, the "God Hates Sin" sticker on his hat. What struck Fentress especially was how "serene" Salee was, a secure man who knew where his moral compass pointed.

Fentress, on the phone from his St. Louis home, talks with unvarnished respect for the folk artists. He refuses to lump them into any category, though he concedes most are not mainstream.

Asked about Catholics, he cites, without missing a beat, a series of 12 signs along an Illinois road depicting

Michael Farrell is NCR's senior editor. the Hail Mary. Many signs are primitive, naive. Or weak on spelling, such as "God forgive me. I have sined. ..."

For the aesthete there is a twofold artistry, that of the wayside sign and that of the photo. Fentress was in art school in the heyday of what was called minimalism, a superficial, dead-end aesthetic where surface was king and content spurned.

Fentress, not suprisingly, swam against that tide, although his is no mushy aesthetic either. "I don't reject the theory that says art can have an extra-aesthetic purpose," he concedes craftily, "... I'm interested in the way the message and the photo interact."

As for the message, Fentress is only too eager to wax theological. The wayside artists, after all, have left a rich legacy to ruminate on, intense contemporary echoesx of the mane, thecal, phares of the Old Testament. Fentress drops the names of such authors as Oscar Romero, Josemaria Escriva and Josef Pieper.

Within a few years of starting the "Signs of Jesus" series, he became a Catholic, although he makes no explicit connection between the two.

Says he, "At the time I started taking the pictures, I was looking at Rembrandt etchings from the Bible, and reading Thomas Aquinas, and listening to Talking Heads (a punk rock group). These led to a sort of fascination with the boldness of the proclamation and the messages."

That was the early 1980s. He has no regrets. "You might call me a |falling toward" (as distinct from fallen-away) Catholic."
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Title Annotation:photographer Sam Fentress, O.K. Harris Gallery, New York, New York
Author:Farrell, Michael J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 9, 1993
Words:806
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