If Sandow Birk ('88 Fine Arts) hadn't been surfing in Ireland, he might never have stumbled across the trove of hand-illustrated Korans inside Dublin's famed Chester Beatty library. It was 2005, and Birk, who was raised in Seal Beach and remains one of a handful of nationally known contemporary artists from Orange County, already had plans for the first fully illustrated Koran specifically meant for an American audience. Yet he knew he could never hope to match the calligraphy he'd seen in classical Islamic art. Meanwhile, everyone he knew (with the exception of his half-Filipina wife) had told him he was nuts for even considering the idea of illustrating an entire Koran.
"Peoples' heads would explode when I asked them about it," Birk recalls over a fish-sandwich-and-beer lunch in downtown Long Beach, where Birk and his wife have been raising their family for the past several years. But after seeing the collection in Dublin, Birk changed his mind. "They had cases and cases of Korans going back 1,000 years," Birk recalls. "They were all hand-painted, and there were all these mistakes, and parts were erased. Suddenly, they went from seeming like this perfect, jeweled thing to something made by a human being. I was like, 'I can do this.'"
Birk's interest in the Koran came from two sources. Traveling the world as an avid surfer—a sport that took him through war-torn El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s—had meant that he'd spent extended periods of time in Muslim countries such as Morocco and Indonesia, as well as the Muslim-majority island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Then came 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Birk saw how Islam was being erroneously depicted in the U.S. media.
"A previous project I did a few years ago was all about the war in Iraq," he says. "I was really following the news every day, just paying attention to the American discourse about 9/11, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and listening to all this talk about 'Is Islam fundamentally at odds with the West? Is this a clash of cultures?'"
It was a perfect project for someone who loved to wade in and thumb his nose at the culture wars. After graduating from Los Alamitos High School in the early 1980s, Birk had taken an extended leave from a four-year program at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. He drove from Orange County to Brazil, where he worked at a surfboard factory for three years, then studied art history in Paris. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he chafed at the tendency of serious artists to relocate to New York. Although most of the creative people he knew in LA worked for the film industry, Birk refused to abandon his passion for visual arts. "Painting used to be the movies of their time," he says. "You would stand in line to see a painting. When I came home from Europe, I wanted to make paintings like that, giant movie-screen paintings."
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Los Angeles artist Sandow Birk ('88 Fine Arts) is a well-traveled graduate of the Otis College of Art and Design, formerly Otis/Parson's Art Institute. Frequently developed as expansive, multi-media projects, his works have dealt with contemporary life in its entirety. With an emphasis on social issues, frequent themes of his past work have included inner city violence, graffiti, political issues, travel, war, and prisons, as well as surfing and skateboarding. Find out more at www.sandowbirk.com.