“What did Nephi look like?”
This question showed up in my Twitter feed Sunday morning as part of a Salt Lake Tribune headline. My hot take? Nephi is a fictional character from a 19th century piece of religious fiction. He looks like whatever readers imagine white/pure and delightsome to look like.
Fortunately, I did not stop at my hot take. I read further. The Tribune article, written by Senior Religion Reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack, covers a new website called the Book of Mormon Art Catalog. I encourage you to read the Trib story and visit this new online catalog. Here is my preview for W&T readers.
The Book of Mormon Art Catalog provides an absorbing collection of artwork inspired by Mormonism’s keystone scripture. It also sports a handy set of search tools. It has NOT been subjected to restrictive correlation like your local chapel’s foyer. Best of all, it celebrates the global scale of Latter-day Saint creativity.
With grant funding from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, this new website focuses on artwork from within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ community. The catalog’s director, Jennifer Champoux, holds an MA in art history from Boston University. She has been supported by several research assistants from BYU engaged in art history and curatorial studies. According to its press release, “the catalog aims to support research and education, promote a greater knowledge of artists worldwide, and provide a study and devotional resource.”
The project reminds me of the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts, a New York based organization co-executive directed by Richard Bushman (of Rough Stone Rolling fame). Both organizations display a commitment to identifying a wide range of LDS artistry. They make it more available for enjoyment, scholarship, and criticism.
If browsing an art collection disinterests you, feel free to stop reading here and instead check out this Pac-Man adaptation of a particularly controversial Book of Mormon story.
Spotlighting Diverse Styles and Artists
To reiterate, I regard the Book of Mormon’s narrative as fiction. Still, I enjoyed exploring this catalog. In particular, I like the array of search tools. You can browse the art by artist, date of creation, scripture reference, and topic. You can also browse by the artist’s country, or by style & technique. If you know exactly what you’re looking for, there is an advanced search tool as well.
For example, I searched for artwork related to my favorite chapter: 2 Nephi 4, aka the Psalm of Nephi. Doing this allowed me to quickly drill down from about 2,000 pieces to a dozen. Some of those were not direct depictions of 2 Nephi 4, but their subjects were at least adjacent to the passage.
Browsing by country quickly demonstrates the global scale of the Church and its creative culture. I recommend trying this. Notwithstanding the Book of Mormon’s problematic racial elements, there is a definite effort to achieve diversity with this catalog.
Preserving Mormon Art and Creativity
The catalog also displays a commitment to copyright protection. Statements of copyright are placed with each piece of art. Given the prevalence of borrowing without permission and outright stealing of creative and scholarly work on the internet, it is good to see an LDS resource making a good faith effort at honoring copyright.
What is more, the page for each art piece includes information about the artist, the Book of Mormon subject, and the medium used. Often, there are useful links to additional media coverage and the artist’s personal website. Many of the art pieces have previously been featured on sites like Book of Mormon Central and DeviantArt. Don’t let the name of that second one spook you. Lots of serious talent and cool work at this secular site.
If you’ve had enough of my summary, I suggest heading over and browsing topics such as Lehi’s Dream. My favorite so far is Steampunk Tree of Life Orchestra. Maybe because it’s intense like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Exploring the Problematic through Art
Now to the problematic. As the Salt Lake Tribune article points out, some of the artwork, especially older pieces, skew toward white European imagery. This can, and often is, further exacerbated by the Book of Mormon’s divinely ordained racism. Art inspired by the scripture inevitably carries that racism forward in many cases. Visitors should expect the website will provide them the same chance to wrestle with the Book of Mormon’s controversial aspects.
Keep in mind the catalog showcases a wide range of styles and skill levels. It has everything from Arnold Friberg classics to 2D clipart. Also, I found the site somewhat buggy. Here and there, zoomed-in renderings are a bit pixelated. Some of the listings have a text header but no artwork. Perhaps they are place holders. This website feels like a work in progress, and probably always will be given the steady stream of new artwork to find and upload.
Mormon art deserves the same thoughtful viewing and criticism scripture receives. The Book of Mormon Art Catalog provides a way for that to happen. As author and professor Terryl Givens says in his endorsement on the website: “This is a fabulous resource that will bring scores of deserving artists to the attention of the broader LDS audience and allow for a greater future integration of Book of Mormon scholarship and art.”
Questions for Discussion
I’m primarily interested in reactions from people who have visited the site and looked around. Here again is a link to the catalog. Once you’ve had a chance to browse, come on back and discuss.
What are your impressions of the catalog? What did you like or dislike and why?
What piece of Mormon art has had an impact on you and why?
Does artwork depicting the Book of Mormon tend to increase or decrease your appreciation of the book? In what way?
Looking through the catalog, I searched for two LDS artists that I follow a little bit: J Kirk Richards and Kathleen Peterson. Both have art pieces listed in this catalog, but the art pieces listed are not what I would consider their better works. Because their better works are not listed, I find myself wondering if this catalog, for some artists, is being used as a clearing house for art pieces that are less commercially successful.
One of the biggest financial players in the LDS art world routinely loans pieces to the church and to BYU. He owns an amazing collection of LDS art. Pieces from his collection are regularly featured in LDS magazines. Large and famous pieces that hang in the Conference Center are his. He sits on a variety of boards to support LDS artists. He routinely buys pieces by BYU art students in an effort to financially support them and encourage their work. He keeps his name out of publication as much as possible — so I will not name him.
Knowing that situation, I find it really interesting that the LDS church rarely buys art. They borrow individual art pieces or they commission art for mass production. They do encourage the membership to buy that mass-produced art.
My thought is that it is a handful of individuals who are financially supporting the entire LDS art movement.
For the larger group of members who have the financial ability to buy original art, I have wondered if the culture of Mormonism keeps them from straying too far from set parameters of socially acceptable art. There would be some cultural pressure to buy art to reflect their status as devoutly believing members —rather than buying pieces that, as individuals, speak to their souls or challenge religious narratives.
For me, Art in LDS culture remains complicated.
Fascinating! I looked up textile art depictions of the Tree of Life vision. There are some really beautiful pieces. The Tree of Life is so visual it’s inspired a lot of artwork – at 233 pieces (look by scripture reference for 1 Nephi 08), it is the most popular topic. Second place goes to Christ in the Americas with 66 (scripture reference 3 Nephi 11).
Then I randomly selected Argentina and looked through artworks from Argentinian artists. Nephi is definitely not a white European in those works! I like Nephi. The Argenitinian works had several that were geometrical/abstract rather than photo-realism which I particularly liked.
Then I looked up art from my mission country and there was only one piece, but it was beautiful!
The filter to sort by scripture reference is such a handy feature! Wow, it would be wonderful if the Church could include some of these original works in the manuals. Look up Ether 6 and check out the whales with the Jaredite barges!
That’s just fun. Thanks for this post.
Here’s my interest in LDS art: do the artists have the freedom to depict things as they see it or does all of the art that makes it into official publications / web sites have to make it through an approval process overseen by the Q15? This is an important question since certain LDS apologists have tried to throw artists under the bus for depicting things inaccurately (BOM translation, etc.).
Thank you for bringing this to my attention.
josh h, a quick check of the staff listing for Liahona magazine reveals this official Church publication has an art director: Tadd R. Peterson. Art Director is a standard position for a magazine to have. Of course, if Tadd’s authority is limited to choosing from a list of pre-approved paintings/photos–like whoever decorates your local chapel–then he may not have much discretion in choosing new artwork. I also see that Elder Randy D. Funk of the Seventy serves as Editor of Liahona. He would certainly have direct control over the magazine’s art direction. As of October, Elder Michael T. Ringwood of the Seventy serves as Adviser to the Church Magazines, but he isn’t the only adviser and at least two of the advisers aren’t in the priesthood. How much say they have in artwork approval? Not sure.
I assume the Q15 have oversight of art in Church media, but may or may not be hands-off depending on where the proposed artwork will be used, how much it’s going to cost, and how much publicity is likely to surround its installation. The Church is a corporation after all. And carefully controlling/approving art selection is not a practice unique to the Church. Speaking from professional experience in marketing, art by committee is a process of sacrificing your darlings and revising toward a bland but pretty and hopefully safe outcome. If the artist is selling/distributing artwork on their own dime, well then you see a wider range of creativity as can be had in this new catalog.
Janey, thanks for pointing me to the Ether 6 material. I hadn’t seen that on my initial browsing. Very fun! I just tried doing a word search of US states from my mission (Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire) but didn’t turn up anything. Maybe in the future. Glad you found a piece from your mission.
Damascene, agreed. Art in LDS culture is complicated. I appreciated your insights into some of the art dealing that goes on. Very interesting.
You’re welcome, Hedgehog! Thanks for reading.
Something that has bothered me about LDS art is how women are portrayed.
In LDS art, women are often kneeling. They are usually positioned to look subservient. They have their heads bowed or they are gazing in adoration at a male figure. Their arms are frequently positioned to be actively clutching onto a man in search for comfort, strength or aid.
When I look at LDS art, it is unusual to see women doing any sort of decisive action. I saw an ad for some LDS book for kids. The ad showed a strong woman. I really cannot think of another portrayal in LDS artwork that portrays a strong female character.
If any of you know LDS artwork that portrays strong women, please share the art work name and the artist. I would love to find the exceptions.
Damascene, thanks for raising this issue. Hopefully it continues to merit discussion here and in other forums. I will say in my browsing the Book of Mormon Art Catalog, I encountered artwork focused on the character of Abish in Alma Chapter 19. Mentioned by name only once in 19:16. Though she causes quite a stir. There is some interesting art in relationship to her. Here’s a link:
One piece that especially catches my eye is “Abish Running,” an abstract painting by Stephanie Kay Northrup. I guess I like the interesting mix of subdued colors and high energy in the subject.
Damascene, I really appreciate that insight that women are frequently portrayed in subservient positions.. Art is powerful and the effect it can have on how women in the church see themselves can be significant (And it looks like the people in the highest positions overseeing church art may be largely men who may not be as attuned to these issues).
Minerva Teichert often portrayed women in independent and even powerful poses. One is her portrayal of handcart pioneers with a woman standing in a powerful stance. You can Google Minerva Teichert handcart pioneers and I’ll include the link in a separate comment.
Minerva Teichert’s painting of handcart pioneers:
(Also, I don’t mean to paint men with a broad brush—many men are keenly aware of issues surrounding the empowerment of women. Mainly I just want to suggest that representation really does matter. Groups are stronger when the needs of all members are considered and respected and religious groups are no different. Including women, minorites, and other vulnerable populations in positions of power works to make groups stronger over the long run.)
Brian Kershisnik’s Nativity is interesting from the perspective of his portrayal of women and women’s issues. Female midwives are attending to Mary, and Joseph is shown with an overwhelmed/relieved/disoriented look on his face (there’s a discussion of this on By Common Consent, linked below). And blood is portrayed in the painting. Most nativity paintings don’t acknowledge the human aspects of childbirth and in this painting there’s a recognition that childbirth is accompanied by complex emotions and that it is messy and things like water buckets are necessary.
What struck me as I browsed the catalog was how immediately forgettable most of the offerings were. Is there something inherent in Mormon culture that prefers the banal, the boring, and the repetitive? That was my take on most of the art. I didn’t return to a single piece.
At first I took the piece title at face value, that the site highlights Mormon art. It was not until I was trying to browse the link that it registered that it is *Book of Mormon* art, which is more limiting.
I was “trying” to browse because it feels tedious. You have to make a decision about which of its categories to browse (Artist, Date, Scripture Reference, Place, Topic, or Style & Technique. I randomly chose Style and Technique, which brought me to another 21 options. I randomly chose Stained Glass, which showed me 4 (very beautiful) pieces. A 5th was listed, but there was no image.
When I chose Artist (hundreds of options, a good finding), then I chose an artist whose work I like (Brian Kershisnik); there were 21 items, only 7 with images, which seemed to be illustrations from a manual, rather than more representative of his distinctive art. Minerva Teichert fared better, with >100 listed, maybe half included an image. Even Liz Lemon Swindle (an appealing DB favorite) only had 2 (with 1 illustrated).
I hope the site creators make it easy to browse, and find beautiful art I was unfamiliar with before.
It would be nice if they expanded beyond the Book-of-Mormon boundaries they established.
vajra2, in fairness I’d argue most art collections (including world-class museums) are mostly populated with representative but largely forgettable work. Part of what feeds the urge to create and consume art is wondering when you’re going to happen on that next Starry Night or Mona Lisa. Not at all dismissing what you’re saying, though. In fact, you’re speaking to one of my wonderings. Is artwork depicting moments from the Book of Mormon ultimately doomed to replicate the book’s shortcomings? Maybe.
Sasso, interesting you are the second to mention the collection failing to including an artist’s best or most representative work. I really like Brian Keshisnik’s woodcut depiction of Abish. Thanks for mentioning Minerva Teichert. The oil on masonite medium is new to me and I found it an interesting texture. Though I’m less a fan of some of the subjects depicted–culturally appropriating Native American history/imagery and calling it Nephite/Lamanite.
I guess I’ll disagree on this point. My opinion is it’s great they are focusing in on the Book of Mormon specifically. Some of my favorite art experiences have involved collections limited to a specific artist or even subject. I remember seeing a Picasso exhibit focused on a single subject, with a wide range of sketches and paintings that resulted. I found it fascinating. That said, I would be interested to see companion sites for the other LDS standard works.
Nephi and Laban by Lester Yocum cf. Judith and Holofernes by Caravaggio
Mormon art either looks like pages from an occultic spell-book (what’s with all that sacred geometry?) or rejects from last year’s Art of the Lord of the Rings calendar. Either way it doesnt matter. There will never be any universal appeal to art that can only appeal to the microscopic chunk of the world’s population that calls itself Mormon ( or did prior to Nelson.)
I spent a year as an art student at BYU and took a class from both Wulf Barsch and Hagen Haltern. I was young and impressionable and thought I had found the secret to truly divine art in their esoteric teachings. I nearly drove myself insane thinking I was going to help usher in the prophesied “New Renaissance.” I crashed mentally after two semesters and put my young wife and newborn on a plane and drove back to where I started 2000 miles eastward.
I woke up from their spell fast enough, thank God. Trying to glean any real wisdom out of these two men was like drinking water from a cup with a hole in it.
I got my BFA and MFA elsewhere. I thank my lucky stars I dont have a BYU degree on my CV as an artist.
I agree that women are almost always depicted in a subservient position to Christ. I have specifically reversed those positions in my primary paintings that depict Christ in relation to the three women that the Gnostic Gospel of Philip calls “the three Marys.” My reversal of their positions isn’t merely gratuitous. In these pieces, they are anointing the Savior to his resurrection, in other words, they are performing sacred ordinances to which they were ordained by God. You may see them here: https://kamroncolemanart.store/product-category/religious-art/
I thank the author of this post for your very generous mention of my “Steampunk Tree of Life Orchestra” painting.
For those interested, I have been working for seven years on a massive work called the Apotheosis Scroll which will teach the symbolism undergirding John’s Gospel and the scriptures generally. Please watch for its unveiling at http://www.kamroncoleman.com someday in the future.