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Photo: Laura Glazer

A Beautiful Journey

In his quest to handwrite the Bible, Phillip Patterson finds the serenity in knowing

By Kathryn Geurin

Phillip Patterson’s tall, lean frame is poised at a Formica table in the outermost corner of the Albany Medical Center cafeteria. His appointments at the hospital’s outpatient HIV clinic are done for the day and, for the moment, he appears as a serene pocket of stillness in the echoing cafeteria.

The former performing artist and interior designer wears a loose ivory cotton sweater and a checkered kerchief knotted carefully around his neck. A well-worn, dark wood cane rests against the table beside his baseball cap. And before him, a huge handbound book obscures much of the tabletop. He grins. “Here it is.”

The 400-plus page volume contains the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses: the first five books of the Christian Bible, the Torah in the Jewish faith and the Tawrat in Islam. The yet unfinished cloth cover reads, “The Plain Bible: Volume 1.” And the dedication inside, in crisp and careful hand on heavy watercolor stock: “To the triumph of the human spirit.”

Phillip Patterson has set out to handwrite the entire 1611 King James Bible. And this, begun in March 2009, is Volume One. When he gets home to his apartment at the senior-citizens complex in Philmont this afternoon, he will take up his pen, and the work of scribe, as he does for 10 to 14 hours every day—ruling 16-page signatures in pencil, writing the verses in meticulous and modest hand, erasing lines, stitching pages, beginning again and again and again.

People expect him to be religious, Patterson says, a minister even. But it wasn’t religion that drove him to the writing, so much as “a thirst for knowledge and an understanding of what’s actually in that book.”

His partner of 20 years is Muslim and, during a conversation about the similarities between the Bible and the Koran, he told Patterson that in Islamic tradition it’s not uncommon for ordinary people to write out the Koran. When Patterson joked that Christians don’t do that, because the Bible is too big, his partner replied simply: “You should do it.”

He describes that moment as “a thunderbolt,” a clear solution to the problems of his need for work that he could undertake within the boundaries of his physical limitations and his desire for understanding about a book that has informed the whole of Western civilization.

Raised attending Catholic school, Patterson says his early exposure to the Bible presented the book as a series of stories and instructions, devoid of emotional context, and too often used to condemn.

“I wanted people to stop damning me with the Bible,” he says. “I wanted to have my own understanding of what it holds, instead of letting hatemongers tell me what was in it.” As he worked his way through the passages of Leviticus that are so often used to denounce homosexuality as an abomination, he reached his understanding with uncomplicated clarity.

“Does this almighty, unfathomable maker really have the patience or the time to point its finger at me?” he asks. “The book implied, finally, that these were the writings of men. I’m not trying to say that there’s no divine inspiration. But there is prejudice and vengeance and rage in the Bible, and those are all things, I think, that are consistent human emotions. Those passages are more about people’s humanness than about divinity.”

He chuckles about our culture’s selective enforcement of a litany of abominations: eating shellfish, masturbation, wearing garments made of blended fibers. “There are so many things that we can point to in the Bible that we are guilty of, but that we ultimately just ignore and say, ‘So what?’ ” he shrugs. “I say the same thing about those passages about homosexuality. So what? I believe in the life that I lead. Not necessarily militantly, but it’s my life. It’s who I am. So what?”

People ask Patterson for answers. He insists he doesn’t have them, emphasizes his doubts and his naiveté . But in the same breath, he intones the insights he has drawn from this work.

“There is something you glean from reading all of the violence and all of the vengeance,” he says. “For me it begs the question of what is expected of me in the context of all of this vengeance and violence that I’m reading, which is very hard to reconcile. What I’ve come to is that it’s giving me a picture of what humanity is. That it’s asking you, ultimately, to make a choice. Is this what you do? Or is this what you attempt to remedy? And my desire for my personal life is to remedy this violence and this vengeance.”

People volley verses at him, initiating a competitive scripture quoting match. But he did not set out to memorize the Bible, and he doesn’t want to.

Photo: Laura Glazer

And people are enthralled by the beauty of the project, of the hand-stitched pages, the creamy cold-press paper, of the loops and lifts of his consistent and gentle hand. But, he says, even the artistry is accidental. “I did not set out to make it beautiful. I just set out to do it. And to do it carefully. It ended up being beautiful all on its own.”

On one of his visits to the HIV clinic just over a year ago, Patterson made a snide remark in the small waiting room, which initiated new branching and blossoming for the Bible project. “There were stamp books,” he recalls. “You know, where there would usually be an Elle Décor or a Time magazine, or something. There are stamp catalogs. Stamp catalogs!” He shakes his head in lingering disbelief. “I kind of shouted out, ‘Who would bring stamp catalogs and put them here on the book table in the HIV clinic? Stamp catalogs?”

When Laura Glazer popped her curly head up from behind her cubicle wall in response, he says, “Immediately I recognized the connection between her and the stamp catalogs—as being, well, something outside the box.”

Glazer, known to Capital Region residents for her Hello Pretty City radio show and her whimsical “Birds Are Beautiful” prints, was doing administrative support work at the clinic.

“From my cubicle,” Glazer recounts her own version of their meeting, with endearingly gleeful intensity, “I overheard someone with a loud voice saying ‘Who brings stamp collecting magazines here?’ So I ran out,” she screws up her wide smile into a fierce little knot, brow knit, tight fists lifted to her chin, “You know, dukes up! Ready to just politely defend: You can bring anything. . . . People surprise you, you know?!” Her face relaxes into a placid smile, her hands fall back to her lap.

“We just started talking,” she says. “I told him I was interested in stamps and pens and handwriting, and he was like, ‘Oh, I’m handwriting the Bible.’”

They are not a likely pair, this aging black scribe and bubbly young Jewish artist. But there is a sort of yin and yang about their spirits that creates a balanced fit. Within moments of talking to either, the partnership makes wonderful sense.

While Patterson’s energy is constant and casually contemplative, Glazer is quick, effusive, tangential and inquisitive. There is a childlike purity about her, which belies her insights. Asked if she is good at making connections with strangers, she squeals, “Ooooooh, too good! Way, way too good,” and insists it’s a flaw she is successfully working on remedying. “I tend to like everybody and think everybody’s good,” she says, but quickly adds breathily, like the confession of a secret crush, “I mean, I do still think everybody’s good.”

At his next visit, Patterson brought Glazer a fountain pen he was no longer using; she shared the product of a bookbinding class she’d taken in the spring. After seeing her hand binding, he ordered a bookbinding kit for $50 and taught himself the painstaking process. “We were always exchanging ideas about how to do something creative. It was really nice to be able to go and talk to someone about a shared interest,” she says, adding with a frank touch of surprise, “Not everyone’s into handwriting, you know?”

Last June, Glazer, who studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and had been in search of what she calls her “big project” for nearly eight years, invited Patterson to her photography show in Saratoga. “And he came,” she says. “It wasn’t until afterward that I realized what a huge deal that was.” The trip was more than an hour’s drive, and required Patterson, who struggles with stairs, to climb his way to the walk-up gallery.

After seeing the show, Patterson asked Glazer if she would photograph his project. “My first response was no,” says Glazer, who figured he wanted copywork, a straightforward documentation of what he had produced. “Then I was like, wait. Why don’t I just try to say yes to something?”

Their partnership and their project has grown from there.

Patterson, it turns out, did not want copywork at all.

“I wanted beautiful photographs,” he says. “It was a setting in which people are not expecting—an aging black man with AIDS—someone to create a beautiful world around that man. They’re expecting to see the desolation of the illness, of the blackness, of the age. I wanted beautiful photographs. Because I actually have a very beautiful life.”

And in that life, Glazer has finally found her big project.

“It’s something that I’m about too,” she says. “I don’t have to pretend. Scratch that. It’s just something I’m naturally drawn to. What he’s doing, I could do it. I would enjoy doing it. It’s in my natural fabric. It would just fit. So this fits with me.”

Today, Patterson is at work on the Book of Psalms, which falls in the fourth of what will eventually be an eight- volume Bible. He completed a special-edition of the Book of Ruth, which the pair had printed for purchase. It is, he says, his favorite book, “because it’s about decent people doing decent things.” The cover of the facsimile bears a photograph of Patterson in his writing chair, an open volume resting across his arms, the lushness of the deep warm silks softened by the humility of his rolled sleeves and calloused hands.

Glazer understands, says Patterson, what the project is about. “She found the beauty in the simple artifacts of the work,” he says of Erasers, a photo of his working supplies. “It’s just a ratty pencil case filled with erasers and pens. But each thing in there means something, and she made beauty out of it. To me, that’s genius.”

Photo: Joe Putrock

They have had ever-growing gallery shows, including a current exhibition at the Paper Sparrow in Troy, displaying Glazer’s photographs alongside Patterson’s pages. They hope, when the writing is complete, to publish a book.

In the meantime, both contribute regular wisps of reflection on a dedicated branch of Glazer’s blog. A recent entry by Patterson mirrors the candor and wit with which he approaches each page: “Started the Book of Job today. I knew little more about it than the hype. So far I’m pleasantly surprised by the ratio of mayhem to contemplation. I still have a ways to go so I’m just sitting tight. PP”

Neither doubts he will finish.

They each speak, in their own spaces, of the lessons of the work itself—about patience, about constancy, about mortality and determination and understanding and connection.

“Some people, when they see the photos, their faces just light up,” says Glazer. “I don’t know if it has to do with religion, or with their own connection to the Bible, but some people just get it, in their own very personal way. To see people moved like that, it could be addictive.”

For Patterson, whose partner “is in the process of winding up his life,” the writing is proving to be a healing lesson in both the ephemeral and the enduring.

“At some point, I’m going to be alone with my Bibles,” says Patterson, choking, for a barely discernible moment, on his usually sure words. “But that is also a piece of this journey that I’m on, dealing with loss. The project bolsters me in the process of this loss.”

“As large as the project is, and it’s huge, the project is finite. You make the project as beautiful as you can. But there does come a moment, be it way in the future, that the project is finished. That’s it. You close the book. You put it to one side. That’s the finished product, and it’s beautiful.” He takes a patient breath, basking in the finality of this anticipated moment. “To me, that’s what one does, hopefully, with one’s life. It’s hopefully long, but it is finite. There’s no escaping that. And you have to approach that life as something you will leave behind that is beautiful.”

He has christened the project The Serenity of Knowing, and for all his assertions that he doesn’t have the answers, he is quick and sure with his reason.

“The serenity is the knowing,” he says, a gentle light igniting in his eyes. “There is serenity for me in knowing that I am finite. That my partner is finite, that this project is finite, but that I get to leave it behind. Ultimately,” the corner of his mouth twists with an impish chuckle, “the serenity is knowing what is in the stamp book.”

“And,” he almost sighs, resting his long, dark hand over the russet cover of the volume he has laid down in his own hand, “there is serenity in knowing what’s in that book.”

kgeurin@metroland.net


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