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Art as a teaching tool

Fergus artist illustrates book used to connect kids, families in Chad with the Genesis creation story

Camels and donkeys seem a natural fit for a Garden of Eden scene, but Fergus Falls artist and illustrator Sara Ronnevik added a unique mammal to her rendition: She drew a pangolin.

The Bagirmi people of Chad, Africa, are learning about the creation story from Genesis 1, 2 and 3 thanks to the artistry of Fergus Falls artist and illustrator Sara Ronnevik. Ronnevik provided the artwork which appears alongside the calligraphy-style text by Nathaniel Szobody. Szobody and his wife, Carrie, are missionaries who use the materials in their Chad, Africa, ministry. Contributed photo

Ronnevik described the anteater’s looks in true artist fashion. “It looks like a porcupine crossed with a pineapple crossed with an armadillo,” she said.

The inclusion of the animal was important to her latest work, a book on the creation story of Genesis 1, 2 and 3. The book’s readers are located in Chad, Africa, and Ronnevik wanted to use animals and plants common to the area.

In her research, she discovered the pangolin and, when drawing the forbidden fruit, she used a fig instead of an apple since figs are more common.

All of her artwork appears alongside the text from Genesis translated into Chadian Arabic and written in a calligraphy style by Nathaniel Szobody. The book is used by Svobody and his wife, Carrie, who are missionaries to the Bagirmi people in Chad.

It was Szobody’s idea to create the book. The second-generation missionary knows the culture and the style that would appeal to the people. While he planned to write the text, he considered hiring an illustrator when Carrie reminded him of Ronnevik’s work.

Ronnevik had previously sent the couple a copy of a children’s book she authored, illustrated and self-published six years ago. She started the book when she couldn’t find material describing God’s attributes for her oldest children who were then 4 and 2. Ronnevik created a storyboard and made 12 stained glass-type prints. Her final work, The Attributes of God was printed through Amazon.

Szobody discussed the Genesis story with Ronnevik, and she was quickly on board. She was inspired by it and its ministry opportunity. Her pictures capture the story’s scenes and help those who can’t read to understand the storyline. Alongside Ronnevik’s work is Genesis 1, 2 and 3 written by Szobody. The book has impressed local teachers of the Koran. The book’s style shows a reverence to the words that the Muslims have held dear in their own religious texts. Through the book, they can discuss the Biblical story of creation with the people in the area.

Developing the book took time. She spent 18 months completing the artwork which, she learned later, is an average time other illustrators spend on similar projects.

She didn’t take any commissions while working on the project, Ronnevik said. Her sole focus was completing the artwork for Kup an Duniya. Translated it means The Beginning.

Ronnevik used linoleum block prints when creating the artwork. It took her 18 months to complete all the pictures. Photo by Carol Stender

Ronnevik began sketching and chose to use linoleum block printing as the art form for her work. While the material is an art product, it resembles linoleum flooring. But there were several steps to complete one block of art. She would draw the picture to scale, color the lines with a soft lead pencil then flip the drawing onto the linoleum block to transfer the image. Using a Sharpie pen, she would trace the lead pencil outline and then, using special sculpting and cutting tools, carve around the impression. In the end, it looked like a giant rubber stamp.

The next step had Ronnevik rolling ink onto the image. It was then transferred to paper using the back of a wooden spoon.

Like all of her artwork, the colors are vibrant. And each piece shows attention to detail.

The process might seem involved, but for Ronnevik, it’s a joy. She simply loves art, a fact her parents and sibling can attest.

Photos of her early life show Ronnevik painting in the family home near Battle Lake. But art was something enjoyed by everyone in the family. When they would visit family in International Falls, the family would visit the paper mill where they and other visitors were given a ream of paper. They visited the paper mill almost every year and used the reams to paint, draw and color.

“My mom always made sure we had lots of paper and crayons and markers,” Ronnevik recalled. “It was always a shock when I would go to a friend’s house and they would say, ‘What should we do,’ and I would say, “Let’s draw,’ but they wouldn’t have the stuff we had at our house.”

Everyone, her two sisters and a brother and Ronnevik, were all interested in art and crafting, she said.

“We all still do,” she said. “I don’t think I thought of myself as being more artistic than my sisters, but it’s what I pursued more.”

Even though she recognized her artistic gifts, Ronnevik didn’t immediately embrace it as a career choice. She enrolled at St. Catherine’s College after high school, but struggled declaring a major. She was unsure if an art career would lead to teaching which was something, at the time, she didn’t imagine as a profession for her.

“I was never naive about the realities,” she said.

She left St. Catherine’s and attended what is now Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls where art was her focus in an independent study program.

“I found the pull to art, but didn’t think it was a viable career to do studio art.” she said.

Once she completed the program, she considered short-term mission work and became a missionary to Japan through the Church of the Lutheran Brethren.

Sara Ronnevik is a Fergus Falls artist and illustrator whose work appears in a book based on Genesis 1, 2 and 3. The book is being used by missionaries in Chad, Africa. Photo by Carol Stender

“It was an awesome experience,” she said. As she immersed herself in the culture, meeting people and working in missions, Ronnevik also absorbed Japanese art. Instead of always surrounding herself with people, she would often take her sketch pad to different spots in the city and draw the local scenery.

“Even though I was doing something else, the art was pushing itself forward,” she said.

She returned to the U.S. and enrolled in the University of Minnesota majoring in studio art.

Ronnevik considered returning to Japan, but said a number of events played out. She taught K-12 art at Battle Lake for two years and considered returning to the University of Minnesota for graduate school when she met Eric Ronnevik. The two married and settled in rural Fergus Falls.

The Ronneviks have four children and are active in their church, school and community. While she’s busy with all the activities, Ronnevik also spends time using her talents.

She primarily focuses on painting. The rich colors she so admired in Japanese art are evident in her work, which centers on landmarks and scenes from the area.

And she’s not ruling out other book ventures in the future. While the thought might cause some to pause, Ronnevik has gained courage to forge ahead. Her change of approach happened during an art crawl in Fargo several years ago. A woman remarked on the vibrant colors of Ronnevik’s work and told her she should do book illustrations. Ronnevik said at the time that she’d love to do it, but found a litany of excuses why she could not. On her way home, she thought about the conversation.

“I realized I didn’t want to be a grandma some day and say, ‘I could’ve done that,’” Ronnevik said. She worked on her art every day and, when the opportunity came to create The Attributes of God, she grabbed the chance.

She’s overcome the fears and insecurities and embraced her talent. It’s one she shares through her artwork and her artwork has also become a ministry.

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