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Glen Nelson: A Mormon Art Juror

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Guest Post: Glen Nelson, Mormon Artists Group

The 10th International Art Competition for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened recently with an exhibition in Salt Lake City. It is housed in the Church History Museum building, which has been renovated from top to bottom. The full exhibition is available for viewing online. You can vote for your favorites. Check it out. And if you are near Temple Square in the next year, go see it.

I was asked to serve as a juror for the competition. To be honest, I felt a little embarrassed to do it. I have a fine art bias, and I wasn’t entirely sure that the competition’s goals—which have historically leaned toward illustration—aligned with my expertise. But there were four other jurors, and I felt satisfied that together we could make it work.

Today, I’m not writing a behind-the-scenes account of the competition jury. However, I think it might be interesting for people to read about a few things that I learned from the experience.

Here’s a quick overview of the competition process. Artists were invited to create works. The May 2014 Ensign announced a call for entries, which would be accepted from November 3, 2014 to February 27, 2015. Participants had to be 18 or older, and the works had to be made in the last two years. As in the previous competitions, the artists were given a theme; this one: “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus.”

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The artists provided a digital image of the works they wanted to enter. They also wrote a short artist’s statement, particularly about how the work fit into the theme. All of these submissions were loaded into a database, and I was told to go through them and score them based on a rubric the museum and the jury created—the works’ excellence, innovation, and use of the theme.

When I worked my way through the images at my home computer, I was struck by a few things. First, the level of quality was all over the place—there were artists who exhibit regularly in important American galleries, artists whose work is very well known in Mormon circles but have little reputation elsewhere, artists who are skilled painters as well as quite a large number who are devoted hobbyists and have probably not exhibited anywhere before now. There were works that really spoke to me and moved me, and there were works that I looked at and wondered if the artist were taking it seriously at all.

Second, the artists were all wrestling with the theme. It looked to me like some of the artists had created submissions specifically aimed at entry into the competition; they saw the theme, “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus,” and then they started creating a piece. Others were shoe-horning existing work into it. They wanted to participate in the show but probably would have preferred not to be given specific and limiting directions.

Third, although I was not drawn to the majority of the submissions personally as fine art—they didn’t strike me as being extraordinary enough—I found it very moving to look at these works, nevertheless. They were made from a place of devotion. There’s nothing I love quite so much as artists who create things that are deeply personal, intimate, and meaningful to themselves. Everything deserved to be exhibited…somewhere, just maybe not at a museum.

And one last thing: the jury got along great. I hadn’t met any of the others before—from Australia, Singapore, Springville, Utah, and Salt Lake City, Utah—but I can’t say enough about how skilled and caring and smart (and sometimes tough) they were.

Condensing the jury process: I scored all the works at home initially by looking at digital scans. The pool of submissions was shrunk down. Then the Museum gathered the artworks that made it through the first round by having them shipped to Salt Lake City. (This was a tremendous effort that was beautifully and rapidly accomplished by museum personnel. Think of the logistics!) Jurors were also brought to Salt Lake City in mid-May. We spent time with all the works, we ranked them, winnowed them, and then talked about every work, as a jury panel. As you’d imagine, artworks had advocates and detractors. Finally, we came up with the works that are on display now. We are fully responsible for the selection of the exhibition. No other entities inside or outside the Museum weighed in on our choices. We were given no quotas on the number of works for the show or anything about content. Each of the jurors gave a merit award to an artist of their choosing, and the global arts curator for the Church made purchase awards, that is, she got to buy stuff. (Each artist had indicated a monetary value for their submission.)

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So that’s the preamble. Let me discuss three lessons that the experience taught me. I hope you’ll find them interesting.

Mormon artists want to engage in creating imagery of the cross. For me, this was one of the biggest surprises of the competition experience. The New Testament theme was so broad, artists didn’t need to tackle the crucifixion, but many, many did—in paintings, photographs, and other works. We have been told, as members of the Church, that the crucifix is not a primary symbol of Mormonism, and indeed it is practically absent from our graphic identity.

When I first looked at these submitted images, I expected to see that they came from countries with predominantly Catholic populations. Perhaps that was a prejudiced idea. I know from my own experience living in Latin America, that such images are so common as to become a shared vocabulary. I thought that Latin and Filipino LDS artists, for example, might be more likely to create images of Jesus’ death than artists outside of that heritage. But I was mistaken. Crucifixion artworks seemed to be coming from everywhere. Why? Does the pain of the biblical experience speak to artists? And why now?

All of the jurors commented on this phenomenon. Artists appeared to be more comfortable showing their own pain, too, and I have to wonder whether the confessional nature of social media has broken down some of the traditional barriers regarding identity and given artists permission to be more intimate.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it felt a bit defiant, as well. They were submitting these works to an institution that has made it quite clear that their preferences for images of the Savior lie elsewhere. And yet, these are beautiful and powerful. They work. I didn’t find them, in any way, inappropriate because of their subject matter. I will be curious to see if this is a trend, and if so, how it spreads to other areas of Mormon character.

There is a battle within the Church regarding what Jesus should look like in its sanctioned art. During the time I was a juror, I had multiple meetings with people on temple art selection committees, curators, painters, and so on. A topic that arose in practically every gathering was the issue of getting an image of Jesus approved for public exhibition today. Who decides what the painting of the Savior displayed in your church building looks like? Or your temple? Or your Church magazine or website? I suspect that if every one of our 15 million members had a way to describe the image of Jesus they see in their mind’s eye, there would be no consensus. In fact, it would be the opposite of consensus. So how do you create a religious symbol for the entire Church? Tricky question, not a trick question.

Submissions to the 10th International Art Competition showed an expansive range of approaches to depicting Jesus, generally. This goes beyond boundaries such as race—in the exhibition, there’s a painting by a Cambodian artist of Jesus looking quite like Buddha, for example, just as there have been submissions in previous competitions from Latin America of Jesuses who look Hispanic, and for that matter, Jesuses who are so pale as to look practically Nordic.

I guess I’m more interested in a different aspect of His visage: what should be the tone of the artwork? Should it try to look like an Old Master? (Is it Carl Bloch or bust?) Is it ok to draw a cartoon with Jesus in it? Can Jesus be updated and depicted in modern dress? All of those issues, so common in any discussion of art as a tool to make itself relevant to contemporary viewers, are politically fraught with our artists and those tasked with displaying their work. Look through the exhibition and you’ll see how broad the range is.

One work that didn’t make it to the show was an image of a naked Jesus, looking somewhat like a watercolor of Egon Schiele—emaciated, slightly green, garish, tortured. I couldn’t tell whether the artist intended the reference to early twentieth century Austrian art, but personally, I was into it. Clearly, it would be a challenge to hang it near Temple Square, and if it had been painted a bit more skillfully, I might have tried to make a case for it.

Offense comes easily and disappointment, easier. I was keenly aware during my time on the jury that my views weren’t universal. Not with the jury and not with the potential viewers of the show, either. I took some solace, like a firing squad rifleman, that I could hide behind the blanks of other jurors. I joked with artists that if you liked anything in the show, I voted for it; and if your submission didn’t get in, I voted for it.

Artists who participate in juried competitions are well aware of the subjective quality of all this. But I worried/worry about those whose skins haven’t been toughened in that way. I hope that they realize how strongly I value them as artists, even if this experience didn’t work out exactly as they wished it might.

I saw the finished exhibition about a week ago. The Museum staff, again, did a terrific job hanging, lighting, describing, and protecting the works. Although we selected the works on exhibition, the success of it is almost equally on the shoulders of people who decide where works are hung, and by which other works. That is, they take the artworks and make a story of it. It’s a pretty interesting tale, if you ask me.

I wonder if anybody seeing the exhibition will be offended by what they see. I hope not; I don’t think they will be bothered. It would surprise me, but it’s possible. Maybe they might shrug. They might shake their heads. If they’re artists themselves who weren’t selected this time, they will likely think, My work was better than that. And they might be right. And if they didn’t submit artwork, I hope they’ll reconsider next time. The New York lotto says, “You have to be in it to win it.” Personally, I’m less interested in “winning,” but I would say this to LDS artists: “If you didn’t submit, you can’t whine about it.”

Glen Nelson is the creator and driving force behind the Mormon Artists Group. You can download his newly updated eBook The Glen and Marcia Nelson Collection of Mormon Art. Nelson, a writer, lives in New York City. The artwork above were all included in the competition (Michal Diane Onyon, Kathleen Peterson, and David Marshall Habben II). Images courtesy the respective artists and LDS.org.

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Amanda Valentine: Fashion Designer

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Amanda Valentine is an accomplished fashion designer proudly based in Nashville, Tennessee where she runs her firm Valentine Valentine. The only reality show I will watch with my wife is Project Runway. I’m willing to bet I’m not the target demographic for the show: white straight male sports fan. However, I find the contestants incredibly talented and the art sublime. One of our favorite contestants over the years has been two-time contestant Amanda Valentine. She comes from a talented family that includes a medical doctor and the guitarist from Maroon 5.

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Describe your creative process. I’m consistently influenced by music. I often get obsessed with a new music movement or a new tiny indie band or a scene… and I essentially want people to feel something they feel when they listen to a certain song. Music is amazing at smacking you on the forehead with nostalgia and hope for the future all at the same time. If I wasn’t a designer, I would be playing bass in a metal band. No question. And at this point I have a bit of a formula- combining something pop culture/graphic with something rich/antique. I love opposites, dissonance. One of my favorite collections was called “French Medieval Fly Girl.”

You come from the Royal Tenenbaums of Mormon families. Do you think all of the high-achievers in your family helped you or hurt you? Both? For years I felt like the black sheep or the underachiever. I rebelled young and loudly. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but well into my 20’s I resented the success of others. I thought if there were already doctors or rock stars or successful parents, what was left for me? Now in my mid-30’s I realize I was dramatically emo about it all and I’m fiercely proud of and protective of my family. No one understands us like each other. We are a unique club of workaholics.

You run your own business now. Ever imagine that one day you would be worrying about payroll? Oh it was the LAST thing on my mind when I was shredding fabric and painting hieroglyphics on maxi dresses! I still want to run and hide from it all, but it is a necessary evil. I want to be punk rock about it and not worry about money or organization but I also want to keep working for myself and employing amazing people. It is a constant, constant struggle. I’ve learned from mentors and continue to just find smarter people to give me advice. I’m now working on the balance of taking advice and trusting my gut–crucial in art AND business.

What sparks your creativity? Every city I visit, I first visit the museum. I love music, I love film, I love it all. I think it’s our job as artists to keep our eyes and ears open to everything so that we can have a catalogue of sorts to draw from when we go to work. I’m especially influenced by the “craft” arts of societies. West African beading, Guatemalan weaving, Turkish jewelry, and American quilting. Those “practical crafts” are the documentations of entire civilizations.

Visit Amanda Valentine’s website.

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Lindsey Shores: Fashion Stylist

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Lindsey Shores’ fashion career started at a young age and progressed over the years into a position with top fashion stylist, Penny Lovell. Shores was involved with dressing celebrities for premieres, Emmys, Oscars, editorials, late night talk shows, and many other events. She was able to assist in styling the likes of Ginnifer Goodwin, Emily Deschanel, Rebecca Romijn, Olivia Munn, and Emilie De Ravin. Lindsey moved back to Utah in 2011 and soon after worked in wardrobe for the hit TV series, Studio C. While in Utah, she’s fashioned stars such as Elaine Bradley of Neon Trees, indie folk singer Mindy Gledhill, and popular bands Mates of State and Imagine Dragons.

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Walk us through an assignment. One of the music videos I really enjoyed working on was the Imagine Dragons, “On Top of the World”. Not only was it great to work with the band and cast, but the production quality and team it required for some of the shots was expansive and working on larger projects can be really fun. To be the stylist/costumer for a video such as this one that’s a period piece requires a lot of homework and research to get the exact year of 1969 that the producer and directors were hoping for. I first meet with the directors and/or producer and take a lot of notes of what style and vision they’re going for with the overall look as well as specifics for band and cast members. After meeting with them I get a start on shopping the pieces and looks for who is already cast. Most projects come down to the wire with a lot of casting and changes so you have to be willing to be flexible which can be rough when you’re trying to find sizes for someone who isn’t even cast yet, but will be in the shoot the next day. This video took two weeks of my personal prep and then I brought on an assistant stylist and intern to help for a few days prep as well as shooting days. With this being set in ’69, I shopped a lot of vintage stores in Utah as well as Ebay and Etsy and pulled it together by using some of my own personal pieces and some of the directors. It’s always most ideal to do a fitting at least with the main cast before the actual shoot but the luxury of that happening because of schedules is rare. The band flew in late at night and the next day we were filming, so crossing fingers that everything works out perfectly is often too common.

You worked in Los Angeles and now in Utah. How different is the work and how different are the people? I’ve loved working in both places, but they are pretty different. In LA I was assisting a Hollywood stylist and worked with many celebrity clients for all their red carpet events, editorials and anything else they would attend publicly. The work was brutal at times and required a lot of heavy lifting of couture beaded gowns, thousands of dollars of jewelry and a hustle when events were about to start within the hour while still waiting on a clients custom shoes to be finished. The people in LA were all very nice, from all the fashion houses where I’d pull and pick up cloths to the stylist, team and clients I worked with. I moved back to Utah and quickly got involved working in television, film, commercials, music videos and photographers as there are no red carpet events here. Utah is my hometown and it’s been great to work here, but I do miss handling couture, attending fashion line openings and working with stores on Rodeo Drive.

What’s your favorite crazy story from your experiences? I have one that stands out from when I worked in LA–when we were getting Rose Byrne ready for the Emmy’s. She’s a desired actress to dress which means many designers are hoping to send their gowns our way for her to wear them to the event. Although we’d always pull at least 60 gowns for a fitting, we narrowed it down to just two of which both Rose would look like a knockout in. We had a fitting set for the next day at 4 p.m. with her and had our options ready, however, Chanel was really hopeful we’d dress her in one of their latest. So instead of shipping the Chanel gown overnight, they flew a private jet from Paris to LA in order to bring it to us in time for the fitting. It was an incredible dress and was drenched in hand-sewn gold beads from the sleeves to the floor. Unfortunately, the Gucci gown on her had our jaws dropped so we went with that one instead.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job? Working with personal clients that come to me with a lack of beauty and self confidence and allow me to advise them in so many ways that can make them feel better about themselves through expressing on the outside more authentically. I pull out of each client the good they see in themselves, first by asking them and then observing and getting to know them and then elevating their style to match their amazing personality. Clients often come back to me to say how much I’ve changed their lives and helped them with feeling confident again and how it’s helped them receive a new promotion, boyfriend, motivation to work out and take care of their body or put themselves out there and become a lot more social. It’s extremely rewarding to see what an outward appearance can do for everyone. We often want to believe that beauty is always and only on the inside, but the reality is that our impressions mean a whole lot too.

Visit Lindsey Shores’ website.

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Adam Bateman: Walking the Mormon Trail

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Adam Bateman is in the midst of epic project—walking the Mormon Trail. Traveling with only his dog, Hannah, he recently crossed the halfway point on a journey from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City. He began on April 28 and will walk more than 1,100 miles in total. Unfortunately for Bateman, this has been the rainiest May in 50 years in Nebraska.

Bateman is a graduate of BYU and received an MFA in sculpture from the Pratt Institute. Bateman says of his project, “My action is an investigation of the rhetorical and sculptural qualities of tourist and recreational travel in the west. It is an exploration of how a sense of place, and more specifically, travel though space is fundamental to experiencing the American West.” I spoke to him from Bridgeport, Nebraska last week.Adam Bateman 12Adam Bateman 4

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How close do you stay to the Mormon Trail? That’s a tricky question. Brigham Young did one trail, but subsequent Mormons did variations on that trail. There are places where I have access to the exact trail and places where I don’t. There’s a real general sense of where the trail was. Sometimes I’ve gotten in trouble for crossing private land.

Where are you sleeping? Camping by the road for the most part. Campgrounds in bigger towns like North Platte add too much time as I might have to walk four miles off the trail and back to camp out. I tend to stay in a motel if there is severe weather. Like I had tornado warnings only 12 miles away.

What was unexpected? It’s taken longer than I anticipated to get over the blisters. Also, reading ancestors diaries. Official and secular accounts of the Mormon crossing. Interesting to learn about how it related to the California and Oregon trails.

What do you enjoy most? Living in the moment. This is so epic there is no way to think about it as a goal-oriented thing. I have a daily goal, but when thinking about it as a whole it is completely intimidating. Just have the mindset of this is what I’m doing right now. Where can I get food, where can I get water, and where can I camp. That being said, I’m 20 miles from the halfway point and that’s pretty exciting.

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Katie West Payne: Examining Heaven’s Sacred Silence

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Katie West Payne‘s MFA thesis at BYU is called A Space for the Contemplation of a Sacred Silence and was recently exhibited at BYU (see a virtual tour below). Payne addresses the delicate subject of a Heavenly Mother in Mormon theology.

The Salt Lake Tribune explains, “Payne’s art show does not depict the personage of a feminine deity, but is inspired by a variety of literature. It is a massive labyrinth made of 200 feet of white fabric, seven feet tall. Labyrinths are commonly associated with goddesses in Greek mythology, Payne explains. On the panels of white fabric, she spent more than 1,000 hours hand-embroidering 19 symbols and words about Mother in Heaven: a tree, representing her as wisdom; a trinity knot, representing the godhead; the famous Utah symbol of a beehive, to portray Heavenly Mother as the queen bee; and a bird from “Are You My Mother?” a children’s book by P.D. Eastman.”

What has been the response to A Space for the Contemplation of a Sacred Silence? Initially, the response to the exhibit was slow. Not many people had heard about it so not many people came to see. Towards the end of the show’s run, the Salt Lake Tribune wrote an article. At that point, attendance picked up like mad. Many more people came to my closing reception than I had been expecting. The interest was overwhelming. The large majority of the responses I heard or read were positive. I will admit that some of the comments on the Salt Lake Tribune article were negative, but they were largely irrelevant. Everyone who left me a message after seeing my show seemed to have enjoyed the experience. I think watching people go through the maze was my favorite way to gauge what people thought. So many people seem to truly be moved by what they were learning. One strong memory that I have is of a young mother standing in front of one of the panels, holding her baby, and just weeping. She was not alone in that response.

Why do you think the topic has become so taboo? I really don’t know why for sure. My best guess is that it was a combination of events in Church history (such as the excommunication of people working on women’s issues), folk-lore, and neglect of the topic by our Church leaders that made people uncomfortable talking about Heavenly Mother. The more important point is that it is starting to change. Through blogs and art and scholarship, Heavenly Mother is getting more and more attention. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, I think it is important to forward the work. It is a topic that is near to my heart, and the hearts of so many others. By continuing to celebrate Her, we will make even more change, until there is no taboo at all.

How do you feel gender issues are changing at BYU and in the Church? Change in both the Church and BYU happens slowly. But we must admit that we have seen some positive changes in the recent past. Women can now pray in General Conference, the age for women to serve missions has been changed, and women with children can now teach seminary full time. These changes, however, are only the beginning. In many respects, we still must look to Joseph Smith and the early sisters of the Relief Society for an adequate goal. There was a vision for women, even back then, that we have since lost sight of. If women are to find their rightful place in the kingdom of God, they must remember what has been forgotten. A large part of my show was trying to help both men and women remember. If we can remember our heritage, we can then begin to move forward.

Do you think the art community within the church is evolving? I would have to say that it is evolving. I am most familiar with what is happening at BYU, so I will tell a little about why I think that the art world in BYU is changing. I had wonderful professors at BYU who were very supportive of my work about Heavenly Mother, but even still, we spent a lot of time wondering whether my show would be forced to end early. This had happened before, with shows that were even less controversial. We made lots of little decisions and changes to try and minimize the chance that someone would see something that they would find offensive. That we had to worry about this means there is still a great deal of control exerted over students’ work. Yet, that fact that I did not hear of a single complaint suggests that maybe BYU underestimates the ability that its students have to deal with controversial topics. All the responses to my show were thoughtful and mature. This tells me that BYU–and Church membership in general–is more than prepared to handle the complex topics that Mormonism has to offer.

What’s your next art project? I am really excited about my next project! I am doing a series of drawings about the wives of Joseph Smith. There will be one autobiographical drawing for each wife covered in the book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton. I am also thinking about doing a special drawing for Emma, who was not covered in the book. The drawings are small, only 10 x 10 inches, but each one conveys a lot of information. I have come up with a system of symbols that tells specific details about the women’s lives. My hope is to convey the beauty, strength, and complex nature of their lives. I am working with the director of Writ and Vision in Provo to display the project sometime in July, if all goes well.

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Images courtesy Katie West Payne/Salt Lake Tribune.

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