Cousins Share Passion for Bible With the World
By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2001
As teenagers growing up in Northwest Washington, Dennis and Phillip Ratner made a pledge to one another. If Dennis became a successful businessman and Phillip became a famous artist, they would give something "smashing" to the Washington community.
This year, the two cousins made good on their promise, opening the $2 million Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda.
The 7,000-square-foot museum features sculptures, paintings, tapestries and children's books depicting characters and stories of the Hebrew Bible -- all in a setting where visitors, especially kids, are encouraged to touch the artworks and read the books, even rare editions.
The museum itself is a rarity, one of only two or three in the world devoted to portraying biblical characters, said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Washington-based Bible Review.
"The Bible is my passion, and the museum is Dennis's and my gift to the community," said Phillip Ratner, 64, an internationally known artist whose works are on display at the U.S. Supreme Court, the National Zoo, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island national monuments and other locations around the world.
Dennis Ratner, 59, is founder and chief executive of Hair Cuttery, a 1,000-store chain he started 40 years ago with a shop in Springfield. Both are residents of Bethesda.
The heart of the collection is a series of 81 sculptures lining the walls on the first level and perching on bookcases upstairs. Phillip Ratner created the sculptures to convey the stories of such characters as Noah, Jacob, Miriam, Cain and Abel, and David and Bathsheba. Other images portray the seven days of Creation and 12 tribes of Israel.
Ratner said the slender figures were inspired by the works of artists Alberto Giacometti and El Greco and are short, about three to four feet tall, because "it's my favorite size" to work with.
"A human being can be comfortable with a sculpture at eye level, on a pedestal, for a more intimate experience," said Ratner, who taught art from 1959 to 1979 at Anacostia High School.
He encourages visitors to touch the sculptures, which he made by shaping and welding steel rods and covering them with an artificial clay called Proform. "It's like the Sculpey your kids used to play with," he said.
Most figures are painted raw umber, an earth-tone brown, although some have brighter colors -- such as Noah, whose head is framed by a rainbow.
Ratner, who identifies himself as an observant Jew, said he likes to show the positive side of the Bible. "My stuff isn't dark, because I'm not. But I see things seriously," he said.
He will continue to add to the sculpture collection, taking ideas from his daily morning Bible reading and suggestions from friends and visitors. When space runs out, he said, he'll put some in storage and rotate them in and out.
On the walls, behind the sculptures, are multilayered interpretations, also by Ratner, of each of the Ten Commandments and of Kabbalistic concepts.
To make the collages, he followed the advice of famed Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones, a guest in his home several years ago, who suggested that he paint with oils, India ink and watercolor on large sheets of acetate to make a multilayered piece, like a cartoon frame, known as a "cel." Beneath the acetate, Ratner often uses paper, cloth and other materials.
Upstairs is a library of several hundred volumes on low shelves -- for easy access by children -- and works by eight area artists, also on biblical subjects. The artists are permanent exhibitors at the museum but change their displays every few months. Usually their themes are very different, Ratner said, but this fall they will unite in an exhibit about angels.
Dozens of school groups, public and private, Jewish and Christian, have toured the museum since its January opening, executive director Marcy Kostbar said. And synagogues, temples, churches, theater groups and hospitals have held receptions and dinners in the museum, which can be reserved and used without charge.
The museum, at 10001 Old Georgetown Road, is open Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on weekdays by appointment. Admission is free. For more information, visit the Web site at www.ratnermuseum.com.