The Secret Life of Warner Sallman

I once wrote a script for a short film called The Secret Life of Gene Roddenberry -- I don't think it'll ever get made, so I'll divulge the premise.

Turns out that Gene Roddenberry wasn't a visionary who invented Star Trek to help a globalizing USA deal with diversity in a more prime-directive-type-a-way...turns out that he was actually a member of a small sect of luddites in the distant future who had refused to participate in the developing technology of BEAMING, because they were sure that the process of material re-constitution would weaken the fabric of the human soul. That instead of actually beaming a person's ESSENCE and PRESENCE, beaming sent good facsimiles of people to other places, their material essences maintaining viability, but their souls fading like a mimeograph of a mimeograph of a mimeograph.

So Gene Roddenberry escaped from this cult as a young adult and decided to go back in time to ready civilization for this twist of progress -- using (what better propogandistic device than...) cheesy television.


I'm a little bit obsessed with copies of copies of copies. One of my favorite places to eat breakfast used to be a little place called the Mill Inn with my friend Dave. In the Mill Inn were idyllic pictures of water mills mimeographed onto cheap paper menus which was a great twist of copying since the real Mill in question was a vast and smelly industrial Paper Mill across the street.

Inside the Mill Inn were pleather seats and formica tables covered with wood grain designs on peeling plastic adhesive. We could order delicious Texas Toast that had nothing to do with texas and enjoy the cheap ripoff reproduction paintings depicting an idyllic rural Americana that none of the breakfasting mill workers ever really experienced.


I always tell my students that I do think Thomas Kincaide a masterful artist -- not his tepid sentimental paintings -- but his brilliant process of creating "originals." Because there is a sense in which we all treat our prints and reproductions, tepid or inspiring as if they are in some way constitutive of our very selves. "Original" in a more profoundly felt way.

One of the best fr'instances of this phenomenon is this painting.

Warner Sallman's Head of Christ

I can't see the artistry in this painting at all, and its nothing to do with Sallman's craft. It has everything to do with the fact that this painting populated my youth possibly more than any other aesthetic ideal. The piercing eyes of this vanilla skinned, sepia-toned Jesus stared at me from walls of houses, church foyers, stickers on the inside of everyone's Bible, hanging car ornaments...I even remember being creeped out when I found the painting in one parishioners bathroom. It was a staredown with a facsimile christ that I'd rather have avoided.

My feelings as I've moved away from veneration of the painting have been alternately -- loathing for the hegemonic white Jesus implicit in all of this reproduction -- to a more benign fascination with the ways that people make sense of their complex diverse world using kitschy ideographs like this painting.

But all this history explains why I was so THRILLED to read of the developing Saga in Bridgeport West Virginia, it's just the entire cultural history of America being played out in a high school in Harrison County.

Apparently AFTER the ACLU and the AUSCS filed a lawsuit against the high school to take down the Warner Sallman painting which has hung for 30 years outside of the principle's office,

and AFTER the schoolboard vowed to fight the lawsuit, courting James Dobson and all his lawyers to join them in a holy quest,

and AFTER high school students in Bridgeport had raised in excess of 8,000 dollars partly by selling t-shirts protesting "You Can't Take Our Jesus Down,"

and AFTER the county held a "Jesus Fest" in the town square,

and AFTER country music singin', Dukes of Hazzard tv series guest star, Mayf Nutter had lent his support to his Bridgeport High School Alma Matre by speaking out in favor of the particularistic painting remaining as an icon of local religious preference,

and AFTER the West Virginia State Commission on Ethics (did you know they existed?) had ordered school board members to cease and desist from raising monies for organizations like James Dobson's Lawyer Goons,

THAT's WHEN things got interesting.

Because somebody snuck into the school in the middle of the night, somebody who knew their way around, knew where the security cams were, knew a good entrance and exit point, and

STOLE the painting. Left the frame, just to make it clear that this was actually about the painting (commented someone from the sheriff's office in another news article).

The criminal has not been apprehended, which I found surprising. In a town of just over 7,000 longtime locals, I'd'a'thought that the sherrif's office wouldn't have much trouble matching up so many pictures with a real suspect.

But I have a theory as to why they can't find him...

My theory? It's Warner Sallman snuck back from the other side trying to rescue his painting from the strange layers of meaning that keep seeping into it.


Jerry DePoy Jr. said...

Is it just me, or does that thief look a little like Ken Erny?

Jackie said...

Ideograph? Hmm, what's that?

redbaerd said...

so my friend Cliff was, apparently writing about Bridgeport in the same moments I was. His post is absolutely worth reading for the acuity of his writing alone...+...I can't get enough of this story. Some of you saw his documentary Immaterial John and his newer documentary (and Cliff's general sense of goodness and wisdom) taught me more about finding the good and true in kitsch than anyone else...

Mr. Erny?! That's extremely funny Jerry.

You're right, Jackie! Could we possibly BE more visually ideographic than this painting...?!

Matt Brown said...

Great post! I've linked to it.

Jackie said...

Probably not. I have to say, we're probably the biggest ideograph nerds on the face of the earth.

Cara Gabriel said...


Interesting thoughts. Amazing post! I've linked to your page through someone elses. Anyway, I hope all is well.

hughes said...

So good.

patterns of ink said...

Andrew, I linked to this post at
It's a long post about short hair.