Two by Christensen

Last Sunday I attended a fireside by well-known LDS artist James Christensen, which included a lot of slides of his artwork, and a lot of stories about his career. I found two stories he told particularly interesting.

One of the stories showed a lot about the biases of LDS Church members regarding art. The other made me wonder what other kinds of artists — authors, musicians, etc. — do to “doodle” and when they do it.

One of the slides Christensen showed was an early painting he did. Uncharacteristically for him, it featured a rendition of Joseph Smith as a kind of candle, complete with a lit wick sticking out of the top of his head. Above the flame on the wick was a butterfly.

Christensen said that when he showed this piece early in his career at an LDS venue in Arizona, a local LDS leader (he thought it was a Stake President) came through the exhibition, saw the work and dismissed it, saying something to the effect that in the LDS Church we don’t believe in symbolism.

For me, this idea isn’t only clearly not true (I’ve been teaching the Temple Preparation course recently, which includes a lesson on the importance of symbolism), but it also betrays the unfortunate attitude that has developed in the Church toward styles that aren’t seen as “appropriate.”

The second story I noted in his fireside presentation portrays more about the habits of LDS artists of all types. Christensen admitted that he had a habit of doodling or drawing during Sacrament meeting. Shortly after he was called as Bishop of a singles ward, he took his wife to the chapel and sat in the various different chairs on the stand while his wife sat in different places in the pews, so that they could determine which seat on the stand made his drawing least obvious. Despite this effort, members of the ward did notice, and any blank spot on the weekly program was soon labeled “the Bishop’s doodle box.”

I don’t think this practice is all that uncommon among active LDS visual artists. I know of a couple of artists who have been in my ward that did precisely this (one was in the Bishopric, but I don’t remember ever seeing him doodle while on the stand).

But what about other artists? Do authors play with dialogue on scraps of paper during our meetings? Currently, I write letters to my missionary son at the moment. I know others write journal entries, or jot down notes from the talks (although, I’m not sure this is quite the same as doodling). I suppose musicians are pretty much excluded from any kind of doodling in Sarament meeting, because it would probably disturb or distract others.

I also wonder how much this kind of doodling distracts from the talks or other portions of the meeting. I seem to understand most of what was said as I write my letter, but I also assume that it is more distracting than the doodling a visual artist does. Somehow it seems like concentrating on two different word-based texts at once seems impossible, while concentrating on an image and a text at the same time isn’t as difficult or liable to distract one from another.

What do you do along these lines? Do you do the equivalent of “doodling” in your field?

Does it distract from the meeting?

15 thoughts on “Two by Christensen”

  1. I used to knit during sacrament meeting in my singles’ ward until the first councilor started teasingly harassing me about how I wasn’t paying attention. I was paying attention: it’s so much easier to do so when your hands are occupied with something. I don’t think this distracted me from the meeting at all, unless I was doing a rather complicated pattern. However, I can see the councilor’s point of view: the sight of someone knitting is now strange enough to distract many other people.

    Probably not the high arts you were looking for, but there it is.

  2. I sometimes write down ideas for stories or screenplays or whatever, but usually I just try to keep my kids from bringing the roof down, speaking of distractions.

    To be totally truthful, I don’t think I really write much of anything down unless I feel almost compelled to do so – I’m too busy trying to show my kids how to be reverent. 🙂 Honestly, I think it’s one of my weaknesses as an artist and perhaps as a Latter-day Saint. I think I’m too concerned with appearances (albeit for my kids’ sake) and not concerned enough with enhancing the flow of inspiration. I forget a lot of the ideas I have very quickly. But when I do write them down I don’t really think it distracts anyone outside my little piece of the pew.

  3. I will admit to some envy of the artists I know who can sketch in church (and pretty much all the working visual artists I know sketch in church). Like Adam, if my train of thought brings up some ideas, I’ll jot them down, but, no, I’ve never done major doodling.

  4. My wife and I fold origami cranes during Sacrament meeting. We’re shooting for 1,000 of them. I’ve found that it help me focus more on the talk’s message as I’m not distracted by the children’s antics, etc.

  5. Does mental doodling count? I’ve often had my mind wander to a plot or character problem during sacrament meeting. It might be distracting to ME, but not to anyone around me. In fact, sometimes I probably look like I’m concentrating really hard on the speaker.

  6. I take writing-idea notes at church when something good hits me. But I try to keep it to a minimum. I don’t think it distracts others, but it can definitely distract me (particularly if the idea is somewhat wicked or irreverent).

    I have also read books (disguised inside the hymn book or my scriptures) in church. I have given that up for now; even when talks are lame, it just doesn’t feel right.

  7. I do a lot of writing during Church meetings, particularly Sacrament Meeting. A lot of the dialogue for my current novel has been written during Church meetings.

    There’s something particularly pleasant, I find, about writing something by hand on a notepad or spiral notebook, instead of writing on a computer as I do for most of my paid work. Maybe the pace matches my story-composing pace better. (I type faster than I can write by hand.) And there’s something about the combination of listening to something in the background that frees me up to do good, if slow, work.

    All of this started, I think, writing papers at BYU while listening to General Conference. I’m sure it’s irreverent at some level, but I’m hyperactive enough that trying to do NOTHING during Church meetings would probably be a recipe for other, worse distractions–or falling asleep, which is a distraction in itself (both for me and other people, especially if I start to snore).

  8. I am grateful I’m not a stone sculptor. I’m sure the hammering and chiseling would disrupt the entire sacrament meeting.

    Artists have a tendency to always have the piece of artwork their working on floating somewhere in their brain. I make short notes or do quick idea sketches if an idea or a solution to a current creative problem pops up in the course of the meeting. When I come home from church, I empty my front right pants pocket of scraps of paper. Then the notes and sketches are re-done in a more permanent form with more detail. I have thought of having a small drawing pad with me but I’m afraid that if I got in the habit of drawing instead of participating in Sacrament meeting it would be rude and inappropriate. I am however okay with kids drawing because they are at an age when they are able to absorb more information at once and don’t need to pay full attention. Plus drawing is way better than snacking on Cheerios and playing with toys.

    The statement “….we (the LDS Church) don’t believe in symbolism.” is curious. If this is a dominate criticism, I would love to see a blog addressing this issue.

  9. I can’t doodle or anything else in sacrament meeting- I get distracted. The meeting is often a time of great personal revelation for me and it takes everything I have just to allow the scriptures and spiritual concepts to do their work.

    We were recently boundaried into a ward that is exceptionally loud – thanks to a bunch of odd parents who will not take their children out – during sacrament meeting and the need for strict concentration is even greater. Add that to the fact that our “new” ward also seems to be filled with exceptionally constipated composers of spiritual rhetoric and I find I must concentrate very hard; otherwise the usually narrow spirit of the meeting is shot.

    Am envious of all who can draw or write and still get everything that is said.

  10. I have too many kids to do anything other than rock them, wipe their noses, and keep them from fiddling with the hair/clothes of the people in front of us. I do on occasion jot down notes to meditate on later for poems but other than that I’m too busy wandering the halls and trying to catch some smidgen of the Spirit!

    Oh, and, um, symbolism is totally cool in my ward. Just ask the high priests group! 😉

  11. Yes, musicians can doodle. Some of my best music has come to me during church meetings. Capture works the same as for visual arts… the empty space on the bulletin or a back of a tithing envelope pressed into emergency service.

  12. I write.

    I look at the people around me and write character sketches, descriptions, observations, and play “what-if” games about them.

  13. We had a couple in our ward who were both highly trained musicians. I don’t know if they did any music doodling but they sang the hymns holding the hymnal upside down.

  14. “I suppose musicians are pretty much excluded from any kind of doodling in Sacrament meeting . . .”

    I’ve been known to practice organ pedaling while singing hymns. (But that doesn’t work for the intermediate hymn, because our chorister has us stand up.)

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