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Posted December 20, 2008 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Biblical background: Local artist offers mural to church to use in live Nativity scene

Sassaman painting
Sassaman painted the mural using acrylic paint, because it dries faster than the oil paint she normally uses. Rich Cooley/Daily

Bonnie Sassaman mural
Bonnie Sassaman, of Strasburg, painted an acrylic 8-by-20-foot mural of the Nativity that will be displayed in The Church of the Valley in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer

STRASBURG -- Good luck wrapping this Christmas present.

Strasburg resident Bonnie Sassaman has painted a 20-by-8-foot Nativity scene for her church, The Church of the Valley, to use as a backdrop for its upcoming live Nativity.

Offering a sneak peek at the almost-finished mural in her basement on a recent day, Sassaman explained that the church helped her family a great deal while she battled and defeated breast cancer last year -- and she wanted to give something in return.

"Last Christmas was like something out of a storybook or something. The love that poured out of the community was like something I couldn't even describe."

While Sassaman already considered herself close to God before cancer, she said it is an awakening experience.

"You will definitely know him by the time you're being treated for it," she said.

"The church was incredible. I wanted to leave my church with something they can use year after year."

It was a natural decision for Sassaman's gift to be a work of art.

Having lived all over the United States, she has studied art, taught art and painted in a wide variety of locations.

"I was drawing and painting since I was 6 years old," she said. "I knew I was going to pursue it because it was something that came so naturally."

Here in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, where she has lived with her husband and two children for five years, joining The Church of the Valley about three years ago, Sassaman has left her artistic mark by doing painting jobs for a variety of clients.

She said she is also familiar with painting religious and spiritual subjects -- always painting "things that felt spiritual," such as an Hawaiian girl with her hands raised toward the sky, more overtly religious images such as Christ on the cross.

She came up with the idea for the mural as the church was making plans for a live Nativity -- the mural was to be the backdrop.

As she began the work, however, she added baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, lambs and donkeys. The star of Bethlehem shines near the top of the painting, and wise men on their way to see the savior are silhouetted in the background.

Later, she also added shepherds.

Sassaman usually uses oil paint, but did the mural in acrylic because it dries faster, she said. The mural is on five large boards.

For Sassaman, the painting was like meditation. She said she had a general idea of what she was going to paint, but throughout the work she prays constantly and allows for changes, giving the brush over to God.

"In the beginning there was darkness," she said, quoting the Bible, and that's how she likes to start her paintings.

"If it inspires me, I'll paint it," she said. "I give God the glory for everything."

"I can't wait to see the children, their reaction to the painting," she said.

As for the church, lead pastor Jay Ahlemann said they are very appreciative.

"Bonnie is a very talented lady and a very gifted artist," he said. "We're just deeply grateful. She is just a real blessing in the life of our church."

Ahlemann said the painting will be set up in the lobby of the church, which is at 2128 John Marshall Highway, during two Nativity performances that will feature live people and animals portraying Jesus' birth. The first will be at the end of Sunday's worship service at noon, and the second will be at the beginning and end of the church's Christmas Eve service, which is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday.

"The children will like it," he said.

*Contact Jessica Wiant at jwiant@nvdaily.com

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