"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
September 24, 2009
Life, faith captured in LDS art
by Orson Scott Card

My wife and I never think of ourselves as "stuck" in Salt Lake City -- with a morning to kill before a meeting in Provo that night, we had a chance to walk around town and see things.

Like what's emerging from the wreckage of the old ZCMI and Crossroads malls.

And the Brigham Young gardens just east of the Church Office Building.

And the graves of Brigham Young and some of his family members, along with the plaques commemorating the writers of "O My Father" and "Come, Come, Ye Saints."

And of course a quick walk up Canyon Road to see where my family lived when I was four years old. Much has been beautified and the parks have expanded; but alas, nobody was taking care of the beauty of the city when builders tore down so many grand old houses and replaced them with cigar-box apartment buildings with fake mansard roofs.

Putting a mansard roof façade on a building is like wearing a cheap Beatles wig to your wedding.

The whole time, we were planning that the climax of our little walking tour would be the Church's Museum of Art just west of Temple Square.

Imagine our surprise when we discovered that it was now exclusively a museum of history.

Nothing against history -- we love history; love of history runs in our family -- but this disappointed us greatly.

We remembered well the excitement in the LDS art community when the museum first opened, and it made us sad to see the official art museum reduced to a few prints and postcards and books in the History Museum's shop.

Whenever something like that happens, it makes me think of the Coalville Tabernacle -- a beautiful building created by the dedicated labor of the pioneers, which was torn down to make way for another cookie-cutter stake center -- a bit of wanton destruction, since it was obviously possible to put the new building on another piece of land.

Or the gutting of all the pioneer handiwork in the Logan Temple, instead of building a new film-centered temple on another site in Cache Valley.

I'm afraid my wife and I took both of these acts a little personally -- her ancestors were intimately involved with building the tabernacle in Coalville, and my great-grandfather was in charge of building the temple in Logan.

And when the Art Museum opened, I saw so many of my friends -- former BYU art students and others -- doing everything they could to make it a place where excellent work could be beautifully displayed. Now it was gone.

Fortunately, the wonderful clerk in the museum shop told us all about the show from the Church's International Art Competition, which was on display at Door 15 of the Conference Center, just around the corner and up the block.

Straight uphill, of course, or so it seemed to us.

We debated whether to take the hike back to the conference center, or just return to our hotel; by then we were a bit footsore. The first competition had left us the impression of a few notable pieces, surrounded by lots of pious and quaint works, and we hadn't been back to see another.

But the museum shop clerk (a service missionary who has already completed five years and expects to stay for ten -- now that's a mission!) assured us that the quality level of the competition this year was very high, well worth the walk.

She was so right. And because the show will stay up until 11 October, I wanted to point out a few of the highlights to those who haven't seen it yet.

If you live in the Wasatch Front area, it's worth the drive; if you don't, you can catch a glimpse of it online

The website is a splendid one. It is organized alphabetically by author name, and when you zoom in on a thumbnail of a particular work, they have animated the screens so you can zoom in on some and scroll around to get a full view of others.

This works especially well with wide paintings, because even if you can only see part of a particular work, it is vertically intact -- human figures are complete. With tall paintings, however, the people are chopped in half by the frame, and no matter how you scroll, you can never get a complete view of any human figure except in the thumbnail.

Even the best website is not as effective as being in the presence of the art, at full scale.

I wish I could tell you that you could see the show if you're visiting Salt Lake for conference, but unless you come a couple of days early or stay a few days after, it's probably not going to be possible.

The art show will be there, stretching through the vast lobby, but I don't imagine you can visit it during the security sweep the day before General Conference, and during conference they clear the building as quickly as possible between sessions, which may not leave much chance to see a show that deserves at least an hour of your time.

Most visitors to the Conference Center are whisked away on tours of the building without ever getting a chance to see the art show -- you have to point yourself to the left and state your intention of looking at the art.

And a major drawback to the use of the Conference Center lobby as a gallery is that the vast windows, while they admit brilliant light, also allow the exposed paintings to be faded and damaged by the ultraviolet rays. Three months in that light, and much of the vividness of the paintings can be lost.


Because of alphabetical order, "Gethsemane," a painting by Adam Abram, will be the first you encounter on the website. In my opinion, this is the best treatment of the subject of Christ in Gethsemane that I have ever seen. It was bold of Abram to choose not to show the Savior's face -- and yet this serves the double purpose of allowing us to see him as we imagine him, and also realistically showing powerful anguish.

"Uncle Harry," by Sherry Lee Meidell, is a light-hearted treatment of the family photo take on the temple steps after a wedding. How Uncle Harry got past the recommend desk in that outfit boggles the mind -- but brightens a work of art that I take quite seriously. Since families are forever, I hope that includes the harmless eccentrics as well!

We were delighted with Richard Passey's tooled-leather pop-up book, 4,000 Years -- Book of Mormon Insights. It feels like an ancient artifact itself, and I love the way the curators chose to display it, with a mirror below so you can see the underside -- the cover of the "book."

On the website, it takes three pictures to show the book's cover, the inside when folded, and the inside when opened.

Three different treatments of Eve left very strong impressions on me. Lee Udall Bennion's "Eve's Daughter" shows a woman in modern gardening clothes, picking pears from a tree. Whimsical and witty as the painting is, there's also a bit of weariness in her attitude.

The best of the Eve paintings is Sarah Richards Samuelson's "Remembering Eden." With a style that might echo the brilliant work of Brian Kershisnik or, just as possible, the paintings of Cassandra Barney, Samuelson shows Eve in a fairly dreary world, holding a blossom. The composition is extraordinary, and the idea of each spring making Eve think back to her time in the garden is moving.

The third Eve painting is Al Young's "The Mother of All Living," which won a visitor's choice award -- and indeed it is a beautiful painting at first glance. But the longer I looked at it, the more disappointed I was: Her hair is too modern, her situation too idealized. It reminded me of Italian Renaissance paintings in which ancient biblical figures are all dressed like 15th-century Italians.

Al Young's daughter, Elspeth Young, commits none of these errors (as I see them) and equals her father's luminous technique in "For Such a Time," a depiction of Queen Esther at the end of her three-day fast before approaching the Persian King to plead for her people.


Steven Newman's "My Peace I Give Unto You" is a modest yet perfect painting of a contemporary woman, piano behind her, scriptures before her on the table, seeming both thoughtful and still.

"Whereas I Was Blind, Now I See," painted by Tyson Snow, has a bit of a Renaissance feel to it; the model for the blind man healed by Christ could not have been better chosen, and Snow's technique and composition are superb.

J. Kirk Richards's lovely "The Greatest in the Kingdom" leans a bit toward illustration, with the bold outlining and fading, unfinished figures at the periphery, but we appreciated his conception of the Savior ending the rivalry among the disciples by humbling himself to wash their feet.

It is possible to consider Clay Wagstaff's "Flyways and Byways" as "not Mormon enough," if you think that all the art pieces have to depict scripture or Church history or Mormon life or gospel themes. But the contrast between the wetlands and the extravagant (but realistic) sky is like a hymn, and the work is so beautiful it would almost be worth building an addition onto your home just to have a room big enough to display it adequately.

Wilson Jay Ong's very contemporary (and realistic) oil, "Three Thirsty and One Quenched," depicts three generations of a family, all involved with the living water of the spoken of in 1 Nephi 11:25 and John 4:14. The artist sees the child as the one whose thirst is quenched; I, because the child was still drinking, saw the older man as having drunk so fully that his thirst is quenched and he is content. Which just goes to show that the artist can't control the viewers' response.

Normally I'm not a fan of paintings that "hide" one object inside another, not because there's anything wrong with it, but rather because the game of it seems to trump the art. There are exceptions, though, and one of them is Sallie Suzan Poet's "O Jerusalem," which reveals the faces of at least three of the citizens of the ancient city as if they were part of the architecture.

"Journey to Moriah," by David Andre Koch, shows a pioneer girl, holding one hand of a half-seen adult woman whose other arm is full of gathered sticks of firewood. The landscape is bleak, and the little girl's face is not cute: She is weary to the bone. Yet she goes where her family leads her, and bears what she must bear. This is the spirit of the pioneers, I think.

Louise Parker's "Who Can Find a Virtuous Woman? II" is diminished by the website; it's easy to miss the impact of this iconic representation of the woman hard at work, yet full of dignity, providing food for her family.

At first glance, Delwin Oliver Parson's "Facing Eternity" might look like a dozen other popular depictions of a contemplative Jesus. But Parson's painting is extraordinary in its composition and execution -- the fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee, the water, the sky, the rock, and the drape and texture of the clothing are gorgeously rendered. What makes this painting sing to me, though, is the utter reality, the particularity, of the Savior's face. It's something we often forget -- that he was not, during his mortal life, an icon, he was a specific man, an individual, and Parson has shown this perfectly.

Candace Lee Hunt's "Earthly Dreams, Eternal Hope" has a story attached -- of the artist's grandparents. While Grandfather farmed, Grandmother took loving care of her husband's severely disabled sister, Anabel. In the painting we see husband and wife at the beginning of their marriage, full of hope; yet one can also see in this woman the strength and love that will carry her through years of sacrifice. It is as if Hunt has chosen to create a new, more loving and hopeful version of Grant Wood's "American Gothic."

With the triptych "Spirit of Prayer," Claudio Roberto Aguiar Ramires deals beautifully with the theme of Nephi and his boat. Always shown on his knees, we see Nephi at the labor of building the boat, then bound to the mast in a storm, and finally on his knees on the shore of the Promised Land, the boat beached behind him. This is not Friberg's massive Nephi; we can still see the boy in this young man.

Howard Post's "I Returned to My Father in the Fields," Joseph Smith Sr. and Jr. seem very small, dwarfed by the landscape. But it's a perfect composition, I think: Setting them in the field where work must be done, yet with the fields fringed by groves of trees very like the one where Joseph received his first vision, ties them both to the world and to heaven.

With "Flight," Rose Datoc Dall shows us Joseph, Mary, and the toddler Jesus fleeing across the desert to Egypt, with Minerva Teichert-like outlining and flatness, but more realism. The landscape is bleak, but the determination of Joseph, the peacefulness of Mary, and the wide-eyed wonder of the child make them real. They even look like they might be Jewish! The breeze-puffed clothing gives a sense that however they might be tied to the ground, they are in fact flying.

Several paintings showed Book of Mormon people with authentic Mayan (or Mexican) features, which I applaud, for we sometimes forget that to see the faces of Book of Mormon people we need to open our eyes to their descendants all around us. Jorge Orlando Cocco's "Jesus Christ Heals the Sick in America" and Eddy Morales's "Verily I Saw unto You, Even As I Am" are radically different in style, but both excellent.

The people who have come to the temple in Bountiful to meet the Savior have very different reactions in Matthew James Warren's powerful "The Resurrected Christ Appears to the Nephites." A young child eagerly invites others to come; others, adult and child, cannot take their eyes of the Savior. But several, perhaps remembering their sins, have to look away. This is my favorite treatment of this scene.

I've been following Joseph Franklin Brickey's work for some time, and "They Did Not Doubt" shows a deepening of his vision and a sharpening of technique (and he was already good to start with!). The painting shows a Lamanite mother with her two stripling warrior sons, as they prepare to leave for war. Their faces show no foolish eagerness -- they know the business they will be about.

Joshua Wallace Jensen took a photograph of a pioneer trek reenactment and presented it in a painterly way in the gorgeous "The Gathering." Yes, he simply took a picture of what real people happened to be doing -- but he did it with an artist's eye, and created a print of surpassing beauty.

I'm afraid I didn't love the style of Julie Rogers's "Look to God and Live," but I loved the story that came along with the painting.

I do admire artists who can create with perfect realism and yet retain the hyperclarity of painting that makes sure we don't lose track of the artist's eye. For instance, William Whitaker's "Seven Generations: Rachel Wears Black" makes us feel we're in the room with the modern girl wearing her ancestor's dress; the painting has the stillness and purity of a posed portrait, while seeming vigorously immediate and alive.

Debra Teare is realistic to the point of trompe l'oeil with "Grateful Praise," which so faithfully depicts a shadow box of collected symbolic objects that it's hard to believe it's a painting on a flat surface. And I adore Dianne Johnson Adams's "The Fruits of Our Labors," in which garden vegetables are shown under bright light that makes them realer than real.

A few works seem to be missing from the website. Thus you will have to take my word that Benjamin McPherson's "King of Kings" is the perfect depiction of Christ before Pilate.

Three-dimensional art

Even before coming to the exhibit, I had seen Kenneth William Packer's excellent bronze "The Bishop's Team." It shows a team of horses standing tethered to an abandoned plow, and I admired the artfulness of it (and marveled at the casting technique) even before hearing the story: When a visitor asks about the horses and plow waiting in a field, he is told, "Oh, that's the bishop's team; someone needed him, and so he set aside his own work to go help." I can think of more than one bishop in my life who has served in just this fashion.

With sharp humor, Janis Lorene Wunderlich's painted ceramic "Family Frenzy" shows a woman with all the cares of her life clinging to her, like goiters; they are all small enough in themselves, but added together it has to slow her down. Alas, the small size of the online picture doesn't allow you to study each tiny burden that she carries.

There were several wonderful quilts, but my favorite was "Schimmelbusch Family Quilt" by Jaimie Davis, showing the Articles of Faith and adorned with gorgeous fabric flowers that stand out from the surface (when you view it online, do zoom in on it or you'll miss the effect of the flowers); and

Another treatment of the Articles of Faith is a series of plaster panels intended for a thirteen-panel doorway, by Jacob Elton Dobson. Each panel shows two scenes in bas-relief, on the left an ancient event and on the right the modern continuation. So for the second Article of Faith, we see Adam kneeling at a sacrificial altar -- and a modern person kneeling by his bed in a prayer of repentance. It is a new and compelling idea to see the bed as an altar.

For the third Article of Faith, Dobson shows us Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapping the body of the slain Savior for burial, and on the right we seen two priests uncovering the sacrament -- changing the meaning of both cloths.

If you like iconic minimalism, you will admire Tracy Ann Holmes's "The Three Gardens," done in ceramic, and stark in its coloration. Eden is represented by the bitten fruit, Gethsemane by an olive twig, and the garden of Christ's burial by the neatly folded shroud he no longer needs.

Another movingly iconic work is Kisslan Chan's lush "The Greatest Glory," based on the scripture on marriage at D&C 132:19: "Which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever." Because Chan is showing people as branches growing out of a great tree, the faces and hands and feet are missing, but this merely emphasizes the harmony and oneness of the human family.

Valery Velichko's bronze "The Last Prayer of Moroni" shows us the fierceness of Mormon's warrior son, his isolation, and his commitment to the golden plates he guards. Velichko has changed my image of Moroni forever.

With the large wood carving "The Sticks: Judah and Joseph," sculptor Richard Olagunju draws on his Yoruba artistic heritage to show the two tribes joined as one. The smooth, flowing lines, the half-abstracted bodies, all combine to make it work as symbolism and as representation.

Benjamin Ray Hammond's bronze plaque "In the Similitude" swirls with the turmoil in Abraham's heart as he prepares to take Isaac's life, his arm restrained by an angel. Kristal Coles's "Grafted In" is an abstracted tree from Jacob 5, whose impact is not really apparent in the website photo.

Look closely at Valeriano Ugolini's "Agape." With the symbolically-shaped frame as part of the painting, the work is full of trinities, and the Latin inscriptions echo Ugolini's Italian heritage. The painting itself reminds me of the landscapes of Odd Nerdrum, and the whole thing has a feeling of a relic from an older time.

With some works, you simply have to take my word for it. Helen Izeubigie's "Charity Dance," a bronze plaque showing Relief Society sisters in Africa, seems to be missing from the website -- a shame, because I wanted to see it again. "Likewise, I couldn't locate the lovely painting "We Will See Each Other Again on the Other Side," by Jubal Aviles Saenz, in which a woman with a flower basket and a Libro de Mormon heads toward a city on a hill.)

And Andrew Kosorok's magnificent "The Birth," sculpted in glass, is so nearly invisible in the website photo that even zooming in doesn't even begin to show you what it looks like and how effective it is when you are able to see it clearly.

Best of Show

Good as this show is, extraordinary and brilliant as some of the entries are, from my own visceral reaction I can easily name the best artwork to emerge from this contest.

When I rounded a bend and came upon Annette Everett's "Duet," a nearly lifesize bronze of two women, back to back, yet in full forward motion, one holding scriptures and looking up, the other looking down, her basket full of food, I knew at once that I was seeing Mary and Martha, and that this artist loved and honored both of them.

Tears leapt into my eyes, for I immediately thought of how faithfully this dual image represents all the beloved women in my life, full of care and work, and yet also filled with light and hope.

The website very cleverly allows you to rotate the view so you can see the image from any horizontal position; what the screen image cannot give you is the scale, for the size is part of its effect.


But if I could choose the two runners-up, they would be the paintings of the two daughters of noted LDS artist James Christensen. I have been collecting prints of their work for years, and I don't think it will annoy Christensen very much to say that I look forward to their new paintings even more than to his.

Cassandra Barney's "Atonement" shows a woman gazing toward heaven as petals either rise from her up into the sky, or come from the sky down to her. The petals nearest to heaven are white; the ones closer to her heart are red. Though the symbolism is powerful (and, to me at least, deliciously ambiguous), there is a sweetness in the woman's face and the angle of her body that make the painting personal and specific.

Emily McPhie's "Windows of Heaven" is even more powerfully symbolic. You might at first take the painting for a domestic scene: A mother bending over her daughter, fussing with her clothing. But as you look closer, you realize that she isn't fussing, she's knitting the very sweater that her daughter wears. And where is the yarn coming from? Why, from the unraveling of her own sweater.

I am actually disappointed, for purely selfish reasons, that the Church purchased all rights to both these paintings. Because that means Greenwich Workshop will not be releasing prints of these paintings, and I want so much to have them both in my home.

When an artist joins brilliantly refined skills to heartfelt themes arising from faith and love, the result is a work worthy to offer to the Lord before the whole Church.

I wish the Church would publish a fine art book from each of the triennial contests, showing images far larger, more detailed, and more complete than is possible on the web. While Church publications are making some good use of the purchased works, I would love to have a record of all the works from every year.

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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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