Backers cling to hopes for biblical center
Dallas: Fire officials now looking at whether blaze was accidental
07:41 PM CDT on Wednesday, July 20, 2005
By KIMBERLY DURNAN / DallasNews.com
The fate of the charred Biblical Arts Center remains uncertain, except for its supporters' desire to rebuild the beloved museum dedicated to Christian art. Fire engulfed the North Dallas center on June 29, destroying much of the building and its prized painting, the giant Miracle at Pentecost, completed by artist Torger Thompson in 1969. Firefighters first suspected arson, then faulty electrical wiring. Now they are looking at whether the blaze was accidental, Dallas Fire-Rescue Lt. Joel Lavender said Wednesday. He would not elaborate.
“A portion of the building was destroyed. Unfortunately, the portion destroyed was the area that also contained the painting,” said John Goble, a Miracle at Pentecost Foundation board member. “It has been declared a loss by the insurance company. The walls and ceiling in the room that contained the painting have collapsed.” While fire investigators continue their work, board members have been discussing whether they can restore the building and its most famous painting, Goble said.
“The board is waiting for the final report from the insurance adjusters,” he said. “At such time we receive that information, we will make a final decision on how to proceed in terms of rebuilding the facility and in some form redoing the painting, given the fact that the artist who painted it is now deceased.”
The story of the painting begins with Thompson, the Dallas artist who dedicated 10 years to creating the 124-by-20-foot mural. It was his masterpiece, his passion, his piece of immortality. “You see, when I finished that painting, I was all set in life,” Thompson wrote in The Miracle at Pentecost: Creation of a Masterpiece, his 1976 book about the painting. “I could have gone anywhere and done anything! Do you know what it means to an artist to have a painting like that on display?” Before Thompson died in 1988, at age 82, he asked to be buried at Hillcrest Cemetery, about 100 yards from the museum where the painting was housed, so he could “watch over it.”
“It didn’t do him much good,” said his 60-year-old daughter, Roxie Wood. “It’s such a loss.” Thompson grew up in Minnesota and South Dakota, the son of a cigar-making father and a mother who rode bareback in Buffalo Bill’s circus. He graduated from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Thompson married, moved to Dallas in search of a warmer climate, and opened a graphic arts company that created logos for Texas Instruments and 7-Eleven.
After becoming active at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, he began incorporating his artistic abilities with religious lessons in what became known as “chalk talks,” biblical lessons illustrated with chalk drawings. “He was famous for his chalk talks,” recalled Nannette Geeo, a longtime friend of the Thompson family. “He was just a regular guy, but down to earth. He was fun, one of those guys that everyone really liked.”
Eventually, Thompson began focusing his attention on the Pentecost, described in the Book of Acts as the day when the Holy Spirit appeared before the disciples after Jesus' ascension into heaven and inspired them to spread his word. According to the Bible tale, the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in many languages, and after that, whenever they addressed a crowd, each person in the audience would understand the message as if it were being delivered in his or her native tongue. Family friend Bill King said Thompson would show him three-ring binders full of research about the Pentecost and biographies of the people he planned to put in the painting.
Thompson spent a year painting a smaller version to serve as preparation for the larger painting. He asked local residents to serve as models, and he and his assistants took another three years to paint the final version.
Al Barnes, a former employee of Thompson’s graphic arts company, had just graduated from college when he was asked to help paint both the model and large mural. Barnes said his involvement helped keep him afloat financially, honed his artistic skills and launched his career. “I’m just amazed he put up with all my shenanigans the way he did,” Barnes recalled. “I came in late, left early. He knew my painting ability. We went through a lot together, and he was close to me. He told me he felt like I was his son. It was very moving.”
In a 1987 interview with The Dallas Morning News, Thompson said he was desperate to find financing when Dallas philanthropist Mattie Caruth Byrd agreed to fund the long-term project, which she expanded by making the painting the focal point of her dream of creating a biblical arts center. “I was ready to sell my house and everything to pay for that painting,” Thompson said.
Craig Millis, who knew Thompson from Sunday school class, said Thompson drew attention as he worked on the enormous painting in an open-air hangar. There were bleachers for the public and scaffolding for the painters, Millis said. “He was full-time devoted to the Lord and his work,” Millis said. “The painting had a lot of depth and feeling. You could feel the excitement in the people, and he got that across. You could study that painting for hours and realize there are so many emotions. It’s a big loss.”
The painting was Thompson’s last major work. A month after he finished, Thompson suffered an injury that blinded his left eye and ruined his depth perception.