Under the Rose
Kenneth Steinbach

On September 26, 2014, at its twenty-fourth annual National Conference at Xavier University of Louisiana, the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts presented the 2014 Arlin G. Meyer Prize in Visual Art to Kenneth Steinbach, Professor of Art at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, for a body of work featuring Under the Rose.

The jurors for the prize admired the range of issues Steinbach engages, as well as the breadth of materials and forms with which he works. One juror wrote: “In Under the Rose, Steinbach takes on a potentially polarizing subject but through his highly selective use of physical materials with resonant histories, he shapes those materials into subtle yet insistently present forms that alchemize the subject into an altogether different entity; we see the complexity of the situation, and this keeps us from making easy judgments.”

Another juror noted: “Under the Rose is visually arresting, and the delicacy and precision of its facture contrasts with the subject in a provocative way.” Jurors also expressed admiration for the way Steinbach’s work gives material form to the abstract goal of striving to live an ethical life, or rather, how his forms bring to mind the complications often involved in struggling to reach that goal.

The Arlin G. Meyer Prize is awarded biennially to a full-time faculty member from a college or university in the Lilly Fellows Program National Network whose work exemplifies the practice of the Christian artistic or scholarly vocation in relation to any pertinent subject matter or literary and artistic style. The prize honors Arlin G. Meyer, Professor Emeritus of English at Valparaiso University, who served as Program Director of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts from its inception in 1991 until his retirement in 2002.

We include here remarks made by the artist to the Lilly Fellows National Conference when he accepted the award.

See more of Kenneth Steinbach's work at his website.


These photographs are installation shots of the work Under the Rose at Circa Gallery in Minneapolis, exhibited in September 2013. The principal image in the work is a full scale MQ-1 Predator drone cut into cotton muslin fabric with a C02 laser. There are more than 10,000 patterns individually cut into the fabric, leaving a lace-like web of cloth in which each individual pattern is outlined with a blackened seared edge. It is a full size silhouette, about twenty-seven feet long with a sixty-six foot wingspan. Under the RoseThe patterning on the work is laid out according to the interior and exterior schematics of the Predator drone.

“Under the Rose” is a term that dates to the Greek and Roman era, and is used to denote a private room, such as a confessional or chamber, where decisions of state were made in secret. Historically, such rooms were designated with the image of the rose over the door or on the ceiling. It is a term that is still used today by covert security operations.

The patterned imagery in the work is drawn from several sources. Much of it was taken directly from patterns documented during visits to Islamic architectural sites in India and southern Spain. The prominent fuselage rose pattern was taken from European confessionals dating to the Middle Ages. The work also uses patterns from the headscarves of Somali school girls in Minneapolis and fragments of contemporary desert camouflage patterns used by United States forces in Afghanistan.

A principle interest for me in the work is how the development and design of these drone technologies align with some of our core values as Americans: our love of machines and trust in technology and our can-do spirit, in the moral superiority of ingenuity and a belief in the progress these technologies bring. All of these the products of one nation under God.

These machines also feel strangely deistic to me. The drones are silent and unassailable. They target individuals precisely. They are invisible, undetectable, known only by inference.

This work explores the ways in which these qualities align with concepts of deity, an alignment that can make it easy for us to assume the sanctions and righteousness of deity as well. All of this feeds a mythology of bloodless warfare that surrounds these machines, a mythology that influences our decisions, making our collective actions a bit easier to bear, making the questions a bit easier to brush off. To be clear, the work is not attempting an easy critique of these machines or of current policy in those regions, but instead asks questions about the degree to which the technology and its iconography comfort us in these conflicts and whether this phenomenon is unique to our current perspective.

I am reminded of the Cedar Riverside area of Minneapolis, a place about twenty minutes from where I live. It is home to one of the largest populations of Somalis in the United States. Ashley Zapata, one of the students who worked on this project with me, found patterns for the work in the headscarves of Somali schoolgirls she was working with in this community. Over the past several years, more than twenty Somali men from Minneapolis have traveled to Mogadishu to join jihad under a brutal religious leader. More have left in recent months to join ISIS. Most of these young men have been killed.

In this immigrant community, I wonder how many degrees of separation there are between some of those young men and the girls whom Ashley worked with? My guess is that most of the girls had some connection to at least one of them. I wonder what those girls think of American ingenuity. I wonder how easy it is for them to make fine distinctions between an American god and an American military, a distinction that comforts me.

One of the curious axioms about making art is that those directions that fill us with anxiety are usually the ones that are the most rewarding. I frequently tell my students that they should listen to their anxiety. It is a beacon telling them where to go. I believe that this is true because those subjects that cause anxiety are ultimately those that are closer to us, closer to the bone. They are pointing toward unresolved conflict, or  perhaps more often, unresolvable conflict.

I think that this is also true in matters of faith, and by extension, matters of the church. As I said, I don’t have easy answers for the problems I just described. But I believe that questions that are the most problematic for us as a community, the ones that cause us the most anxiety, are likely pointing us somewhere important.

In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Bruegge­mann asserts that the Messianic voices of prophecy in the Bible have traditionally been used to engage static systems of belief and power. Those voices speak in counterpoise by offering symbols of alternative opinions and fears, and facilitating the reorganization of values according to the freedoms found in Christian faith. Under the Rose attempts to speak within that tradition, not offering simplistic analysis and solutions, but asking questions about the character of these conflicts and the nature of the power we bring to bear on them.


Kenneth Steinbach is Professor of Art at Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. More of his work can be viewed at www.kennethsteinbach.com.

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