“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?