- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

For artist Phillip Ratner, the museum of Old Testament images that he and cousin Dennis Ratner are opening this fall in Bethesda, Md., is a mission that extends beyond a building.

The Dennis & Phillip Ratner Museum, the family owned complex nearing completion at 10001 Old Georgetown Road, is dedicated to visualizing through sculpture, painting and tapestry the dramatic stories and lessons embodied in the texts of the Hebrew Bible.

The faces and faith of Old Testament people and events are not vivid enough in contemporary minds, they believe. Being a pair of high-energy types used to accomplishing their goals, the Ratners set about to change that in rapid fashion.

"We're both visionaries, in different ways," says Phillip Ratner, 63.

Dennis Ratner, 58, the museum's president, says: "We felt it to be [a] worthy pursuit [to] give this as a gift to all religions, nearly all of whom are based on the Old Testament, whether Jewish or Christian. Everybody can relate to these old stories in some fashion or another."

The idea, too, he says, is to give something back to a community in which both their families have deep roots. The pair are third-generation Washingtonians. Phillip Ratner's grandfather was instrumental in organizing a group of musicians that grew into what eventually became the National Symphony Orchestra.

Final approval last week from Montgomery County building inspectors means that the two men can set an opening date expected to be in October and book the many tour groups that have been asking to visit. Another key step is to hire a permanent director so that Phillip Ratner, now acting director and key functionary, can get back to making art his full-time work.

Dennis Ratner, founder and director of the Hair Cuttery chain, donated $2 million to make the Bethesda museum possible. Phillip Ratner has created the art colorful, commanding works to go on display in the museum proper. Most are free-standing, representative figures to be displayed on pedestals in chronological order from Genesis to Malachi.

The works bear titles such as "Tree of Knowledge," portraying Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and "David, the Harp" (2 Samuel 6:14-16, 19-23), showing David dancing with a harp as he enters Jerusalem bringing the ark. "Jonah," of course, is a large fish often called a whale swallowing Jonah. Noah's ark, a three-dimensional layered work, titled, simply, "Noah," was the most complicated to make.

Many of the elongated figures are shown in sweeping, spiraling settings depicting movement and emotion. All are constructed of plastic Sculpey atop a welded steel framework, which gives them strength as well as flexibility.

Phillip Ratner's favorite, in what he calls a "landmark celebration of the Bible," is "Tablets Aloft." It is a 3-foot-high Moses with hands overhead holding tablets containing the Ten Commandments.

"I was positive when I first heard [the story of the Commandments] that it happened. I've always asked people if they can come up with an 11th commandment, and nobody ever has suggested one that isn't included in the 10," he says.

The artist describes what the public can expect to see as "a walk through the Bible with my art."

Some of his best-known works are in the Supreme Court building and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He also has done five large bronze figures at the Statue of Liberty that portray the statue's founders and smaller images of anonymous immigrants drawn to American shores. Another set of eight large immigrant figures soon will be put in a permanent position on Ellis Island.

The cousins, who are "closer than brothers," in Phillip Ratner's words, have set up a foundation to maintain the project. Visitors will be charged only for the purchase of printed materials.

The concept, five years in the making, includes an educational component. The museum's only model is the Israel Bible Museum, which the two cousins built in 1984 in the village of Safad, where Phillip Ratner lived for nearly a decade with his wife, Ellen, also an artist.

The Israeli museum, which is open 11 months out of a year, contains 300 biblical scenes. Phillip Ratner produced much of the work in a studio on the spot.

Proof of both projects' drawing power, Phillip Ratner says, is a count of 30,000 hits a month on the two Web sites for the museums. (The home page for the Bethesda museum is www.ratnermuseum.com.)

The Bethesda museum will be open to interested groups Sundays through Thursdays especially student groups for whom Phillip Ratner, a former art teacher at Anacostia High School, has prepared special workshop materials designed to bring Old Testament stories to life on the page.

A library of 500 illustrated editions of the Bible will be available to visitors. The general public also will be invited in once a week, with the exact day yet to be determined.

"The Israel museum really was Phillip's vision," Dennis Ratner says. "We were getting such a tremendous response from people all over the world, and then he started coming back to Washington more often, that I said, 'Wouldn't it be right to do the same thing here?' "

The concrete result of their dream is a group of three white stucco and stone structures with 30 parking spaces on a 1-acre site at Lone Oak Drive East and Old Georgetown Road.

The square-shaped, two-level museum containing the main exhibition space was planned to blend with the residential neighborhood. A smaller building in back will house an activities center with small rooms open to both professional and amateur artists, including children. A meditation group meets there weekly and uses Hebrew imagery as its guide. Phillip Ratner's studio is upstairs.

A 100-year-old farmhouse on the property, which once stood amid a large apple orchard, is now home to Phillip Ratner and his wife. The couple are quietly religious. They pray daily and observe the Sabbath and holidays.

"We live the life we are talking about here," he says.

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