Sam Fentress is a Jack Kerouac of sorts. He travels the roads of America looking to find not himself but Biblical signs and bill boards - messages to praise and persuade. In his many sojourns he has found farmhouses, grain silos, restaurants, hair salons, gas stations and even traffic signs bearing Biblical messages. An artist and a photographer, Fentress first started photographing roadside biblical messages when a student in his class brought him a picture of a barn covered in Scriptures. Fentress was stunned.
"It just knocked my socks off as a picture," he said. "The boldness of the farmer in covering the roof, the sides — every square foot of the barn had some sort of Bible quote, Old Testament, New Testament, Gospels, Epistles, Revelation."
Fentress has photographed an urban billboard which rotated its message to read among other things.
- 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.
Behind the billboard was a building with a big sign, "Furniture Factory Outlet World." God and mammon jousting for attention.
Now Fentress has a book out of his collection of photographs titled "Bible Road" which he edited for what he hopes is, "interesting both theologically and aesthetically."
Sam Fentress has spent the past 25 years crisscrossing America's highways and byways, stopping along the way to snap shots of religious signs in every state except Hawaii. He found everything from John 3:3 on a farm silo in Ohio to "Obey God or Burn" scratched into a rock in Harlem....
At some point in the late '70s or early '80s, Fentress realized the farmer wasn't alone. Wherever he looked, he saw religious signs along the roadside. He started to methodically photograph thousands of such images over the next two decades. Along the way, he also became a Catholic.
Fentress, 52, has a master of arts from the Art Institute of Chicago and his work is collected by museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the St. Louis Art Museum.
The religious roadside signage is particularly American, he said, given the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of speech and religion and the country's religious diversity.
"Americans are told they can say whatever they want," he said. And people feel free to say it — or perhaps, show it — whether on their front lawn, barn or business.
Fentress said he was intrigued by the juxtaposition of landscape and religious message. Some images capture signs on businesses, which he attributed to a capitalist tendency to co-opt religion into something that can be marketed and sold. But he also recognized the impulse to spread the "good news" wherever possible.
In Las Vegas, he spotted Glorified Bodies Inc., a collision repair shop with the Christian fish symbol on its signpost. He noted the relationship between Jesus' resurrected body, as described in the New Testament, and restoring damaged cars. [Link]
For some samples of Fentress' photos see here.