What’s crimson, gold, cadmium yellow and appliqued all over? A Michael and Virginia Crosby banner. These two Ohio-based craftspeople paint” with fabrics of all colors, using corduroy, satin, silk and wool, even fabric that’s leftover from a bed pillow or pair of pants that Virginia’s sewn up on her sewing machine. Photographs do not reveal the full impact of these creations. Like a Van Gogh painting, the banners beg you to come closer, to gaze and “ooh and aah” over them. You will find yourself doing just that if you encounter one at a messianic conference or Jews for Jesus Ingathering.
Michael and Virginia do not fit the “mold” of typical, trained messianic artists. Neither claims a background in art or design. Michael’s formal art training consisted of one year’s work in ceramics at Ohio State University. Virginia is primarily a messianic folk dancer, and her interest in banner—making grew out of her involvement in worship dance. After attending a large messianic conference in 1987, she brought back the dances she had learned to Beth Yeshua Congregation in Youngstown, Ohio, and began a congregational dance team. The team needed costumes, which Virginia designed and sewed. She began creating banners soon after that.
While Michael creates many of the designs and lettering for the banners, he primarily works with wood. His hand-carved Shabbat platters, candlesticks, seder plates, clocks and kiddush cups are his own designs. However, his interest in “messianic woodwork” had a humble, even simplistic, beginning. In 1983, while driving an ambulance, Michael’s co-driver introduced him to the Jewishness of the Scriptures. For an upcoming wedding, Michael decided to try his hand at woodworking and researched Jewish designs at a local synagogue. A Sunset book provided him with instructions in wood carving—and the first messianic, hand carved, bas-relief design, chuppah poles were made. “Michael Designs” was born.
Michael’s early pieces were sold through synagogue gift shops and Jewish community centers. But Jews for Jesus was among the first beneficiaries of the Crosbys’ work, as Michael and Virginia lent several of their large banners to grace the stage at various Ingatherings and Ingathering art shows. In fact, the ministry is fortunate to own several of their banners, which are on permanent display at the San Francisco Headquarters facility.
What do the banners look and feel like? They are made of satin, tapestry or other fabrics which are set on a stiffer base of canvas or interfacing. Surprisingly, very little sewing is involved. Sequins, stones and cording are attached by glue or fusible webbing. The banners are very large, sometimes as high as nine feet, and stand on a handmade wooden base and pole.
Michael and Virginia pore over Jewish history and art books for inspiration. Virginia uses simple forms and incorporates them with Scripture, which Michael draws and hand cuts from fabrics. The Crosbys are rarely able to sit down and create a banner from start to finish in one sitting. “Once we did a banner for a wedding in a week, but we’d rather not do that again!” Michael laughs. Are the banners expensive? How much would you pay for a Michelangelo? Actually, the banners run from $500 to $1200 and can be custom-ordered.
Sometimes a banner is bought literally right off the wall, as was the case of the very large piece that graced the stage of the UMJC Conference at Wheaton College in Illinois in 1995. It is now a pivotal source for worship and viewing at Bnai Maccabim Congregation in Highland Park, Illinois. Other Crosby banners are displayed and marketed at conferences and by word of mouth.
Michael and Virginia express different but congruent approaches to their work. Michael says, “I want my art to reflect the Messiah to the unbelieving Jewish community. I also hope that I can be an inspiration to other messianic believers so that they might catch a vision for contributing to the ‘fabric’ of the arts. I also would love to see a chapter on messianic artists make its way someday into a Jewish art book!”
It is Virginia’s hope “to give the messianic movement a greater understanding of worship. I’d like our banners to be a focal point in a congregation, directing people’s hearts to worship the beauty of the Lord.” In fact, the purpose statement of “Michael Designs” is: “To spread the message of Messiah to the Jewish people, educate the believing non-Jewish person of the Jewishness of his faith, and promote a proper Jewish awareness and understanding among the non-Jewish, non-believing community, through the art mediums of wood, ceramics and textiles.”
The Crosbys may be reached in care of the Chicago branch of Jews for Jesus at [email protected].