The passion that became Tulsa-native Jonathan Martin’s career was sparked in junior high school, when he was asked to paint a set for a school play.
Nearly three decades later, Martin’s company, Jonathan Martin Creative, is working on a four-year contract to design and build displays for the Museum of the Bible, a 430,000-square-foot, $500 million museum that will open in November in Washington, D.C., just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
Oklahoma’s Green family, owner of Hobby Lobby, is the inspiration behind the Museum of the Bible.
“We’re giving it all we’ve got. It’s the biggest honor. It’s just incredible. We pinch ourselves every day,” Martin said.
“I’m close to it, so I’m biased,” he said, “but the museum is so legit, to use a slang term.”
Martin said his team has looked at other museums in Washington — the city of museums — and “in terms of planning, presentation of material, execution and craftsmanship, it’s going to be top drawer. They won’t be playing second fiddle to anybody. It’s a very impressive endeavor.
“It’s going to be breathtaking.”
Jonathan Martin Creative is the smallest of four companies contracted to develop and build the displays in the museum, Martin said.
When he got the contract, he began to assemble a team of 60 writers, artists, computer modelers, blacksmiths, welders and other artisans, including Tulsa-area artists Kristin Davis and her father, Wayne Bass.
Martin’s team is working on three areas of the museum: a mural in a coffee shop, a 2,000-square-foot children’s area with interactive games and activities in a Bible-story setting, and an 8,000-square-foot fully immersive first-century Nazarene village.
Called “The World of Jesus of Nazareth,” the village will have buildings, gnarled old olive trees in rocky terrain, animals, ancient tools and implements, and live actors dressed in Bible-era attire serving as docents and interacting with people at the museum.
Visitors will be able to walk freely through the village, touch everything, hear the sounds of animals and the wind in the trees, and watch the light change as the sun comes up and goes down, Martin said.
“It’ll be a very accurate, authentic first-century village,” he said. “It will give people context, … make Scripture come alive in a deeper way.”
Martin said he is 3½ years into the four-year project, which is on target to be completed on schedule.
The first two years were the design stage, with the second two years for fabrication and implementation.
“It’s been an adventure, but so far, no missteps,” he said. “Our client is very happy with what we have produced.”
The Museum of the Bible is Martin’s largest contract. Over the past 20 years, his company has made hundreds of sets for churches, music videos, commercials and television shows.
Martin said he has been creating sets and environments ever since he made that first set in junior high.
Born in California and raised for most of his life in the Tulsa area, he graduated from Grace School in 1992 and Oral Roberts University in 1996 with a degree in telecommunications and an emphasis on film.
He incorporated his business the year he graduated from college.
Two years later, he said, he pitched an idea for a children’s television puppet show called “Pahappahooey Island” to Impact Productions, a Tulsa production company. They liked it, and he oversaw the development of the characters and the set for the show and worked on the first four episodes. Impact continued to make the show, 14 episodes in all, and they are still being shown on Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world’s largest Christian network.
Martin’s connection with the Green family and the Museum of the Bible began seven years ago when he got a cryptic invitation to a meeting in Oklahoma City.
“It was a two-day lock-in. That was all I knew about it,” he said. “We were in this board room for two days with these incredible, wonderful people.
“My job was to sit there with a Sharpie and draw potential scenery for a new exhibit called ‘Passages.’ ”
“Passages” was to become a traveling exhibit of Bible artifacts collected by the Green family, owners of one of the world’s largest private collections of Bible artifacts.
In 2010, the Museum of the Bible was incorporated to build a permanent home for the Green Collection and other private collections of biblical artifacts.
“They gave us the opportunity to be one of the exhibit design teams. It was a very big honor,” Martin said.
Four years ago, Martin moved his company from Tulsa to Nashville.
He didn’t set out to work with churches and ministries, he said.
“It hasn’t been a marketing strategy,” he said, “but it has worked out great; 98 percent of our work is Christian. We don’t try to push it that way; it just goes that way.”
He said his work feels like a calling.
“It’s very fulfilling,” he added.
Steve Green, chairman of the board of Museum of the Bible and president of Hobby Lobby, said on the museum’s website that the museum is “dedicated to a scholarly and engaging presentation of the Bible’s impact, history and narrative.”
“The Bible is the best-selling, most translated book of all time and is arguably history’s most significant piece of literature,” he said.
“It has had an unquestionable influence on science, education, democracy, arts and society. This book has also profoundly impacted lives across the ages, including my own.”
Read more at Tulsans involved in building Museum of the Bible.