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Growing up in the Church, we often come back to the same images of scripture stories again and again. They are almost inseparably connected in our minds with the scenes and moments they depict. These pictures are beautiful, but they are—as all art is—just one artist’s interpretation. What is the benefit of being presented with an alternative perspective on these familiar, sacred ideas and moments?
The Springville Museum of Art’s Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah exhibition is a compelling place to find your own answer to that question. In its 32nd year, the juried exhibition provides a venue for artists from all over Utah to showcase and celebrate the diversity of their beliefs and spiritual expression.
Too often we think of Utah as a totally homogenous environment when it comes to religion. Not only is that untrue in terms of the presence of non-LDS religious groups in the state, but it also assumes that everyone within the Church has identical spiritual understanding and religious experience, which they obviously do not. This carefully curated exhibit experience is a moving reminder, not only of the variety of sacred experiences represented in Utah, but of the nuances left to explore within our own spiritual understanding as viewers.
You don’t realize the assumptions you walk around with until you are faced with something that either beautifully confirms or intriguingly challenges those assumptions. Religious art, particularly when it’s new to you, does just that. If what you see is contrary to your expectations of a doctrinal concept or a scriptural character, you are forced to ask yourself where your existing assumptions came from and whether seeing things in a different way can enhance your understanding.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” Even when what you see is something you disagree with or personally don’t like, you can’t help but come away expanded and clarified.
Take the following piece as an example. Entitled Adam’s Dilemma, artist Megan Knobloch Geilman said she intended this piece to be an “allegorical snapshot of the moment after Eve has partaken of the fruit, but before Adam does.”
For the artist, the room full of objects is symbolic of all that Adam has to be willing to take on; knowledge and children and hunger and time that will one day run out. I imagine most viewers’ attention would be very focused on exploring all those objects in this very crowded scene, but my attention stayed on one thing in the piece and it defined my whole experience with it.
I couldn’t stop coming back to her pearls and polka-dots, his white shirt and tie. Those details make them look like a very young, BYU-type couple to me which made me immediately think how the decision to marry when one has so little experience of life is not unlike the innocent Adam and Eve taking on the complete unknown of the world outside Eden. The parallel gave me new insight into both twenty-somethings facing eternity and our first parents facing mortality. It sparked a fascinating train of thought for me and the best part is that someone else probably looked at this and saw something completely different. What do you see? (Feel free to comment below).
The pieces in this exhibit can’t help but be felt and not just seen. That’s the fantastic thing about art, it invokes thoughts and emotion, but not the same thoughts and emotion for everyone. So, a visit to Springville Museum of Art’s Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah exhibition, if you come with an open mind and open mouth, will probably spark discussions that lead to discoveries about family and friends that you thought you already knew.
Those discussions are inevitable because religious art deals with things that are too personal and too important not to inspire an internal response of some kind. That’s the difficult task of a religious artist, as Ashlee Whitaker, Curator of Religious Art at BYU’s MOA puts it, “Trying to capture and harness a sense of those profound and transcendent doctrinal ideas…in a way that can be felt by the viewer.”
Another example straight from the exhibit is J. Kirk Richards’ piece, The Trumpet Shall Sound:
In many ways, this piece can’t fully be appreciated except in person because the physical texture of it is so integral to its emotional effect. Here is resurrection depicted in a way I’ve never seen or thought of it before. The mud flying heavenward is thick and heavy in clumps that come right out of the canvas.
The contrast between light and dark is stark and yet there’s a feeling of triumph to it. This is the moment when everyone gets back what was lost; no matter who they were, they get to rise again. I’ve never pictured the feeling or the moment until I saw this interpretation of it. Never explored how it might feel to have our bodies back and compare notes on how mortality went for us all.
Religious art is prone to make you think about things you never have before and that’s what makes it so special. Emily Larsen Boothe, Assisstant Curator at the Springville Museum of Art said it this way, “It is a part of the human experience to wonder about the mysteries of life and the universe, to ask ourselves the big, existential questions…I love that our visitors can come to this show and see how over a hundred different local artists have grappled and contended with these same questions.”
We all ask similar questions, but we don’t always come to the same conclusions. An exhibition like this is an opportunity to viscerally explore someone else’s answers to your sacred questions.
A particular piece from artist Jenedy Paige asked me a new question that I’ve continued to ponder since seeing it:
The piece is called Holding Back and as I look at the back of this woman anxiously hiding something, I can’t help but wonder what I am holding back; whether in life in general or from the Lord or from myself. The lace on her dress makes her feel both historic and timeless and the deep color and sheen of the fabric clutched in her hands make what she’s holding seem profoundly important. I still don’t know what my answer to that question is, but I’m glad I was asked.
“The galleries open up an internal and external cosmos of ideas, questions, and thoughts,” said Rita R. Wright, Director of the Springville Museum of Art. What a stirring experience to be reintroduced to your own internal cosmos, your own depth and wonder and infinite soul. That’s what art—especially religious art—can do.
And for those that live in Utah, the Springville Museum of Art’s 32nd Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah exhibition is where you can start.
For those that don’t live in Utah, it’s worth seeking out your own opportunities to support contemporary religious art in whatever venue you can find it. To say that devotional expression belongs in the past is to say that we have no devotion left to express. Let’s not be like the elementary school teacher in The Truman Show and tragically declare that spiritually, “there’s really nothing left to explore.”
The exhibition will be up through January 10, 2018.
The Springville Museum of Art is located at 126 East 400 South in Springville, Utah 84663. For further information their phone number is: 801-489-2727.
Also be sure to take the time to visit SMA’s related exhibit: Sacred Spaces: Archetypes and Symbols about which I could write a complete, additional article.