Mormon Artist Magazine: Interview With Ben Crowder

Mormon Artist is a new on-line magazine that is imressive in its ambitions, and even more impressive in the fact that it seems to be meeting those ambitions. This is a publication to watch. After having just released the third issue, I interviewed Mormon Artist editor and founder Ben Crowder. The magazine can be found at . Although the web layout is nice, I even more highly recommend the PDF version of the magazine for its wonderful aesthetic quality. — Mahonri Stewart

Q. 1- First off, tell our readers about Mormon Artist. What is it? What are you trying to accomplish with it? What is its genesis?Mormon Artist is an online magazine about the Latter-day Saint arts world. Its core is interviews with the artists themselves, since that’s what I find most interesting, but we’re gradually expanding to include more types of content as well. I have three goals for the magazine: first, to show how much is actually happening in Mormon arts (much of which is unknown to most members); second, to encourage more and better work; and third, to help new artists get started by getting their names out there.

I suppose the birth of the magazine was at the end of June — and I’ll get to that in a moment — but its genesis started much earlier. I’d spent the previous year writing and directing plays with New Play Project, and I think it’s safe to say that if it weren’t for NPP, there would be no Mormon Artist. Working on Mormon theatre not only gave me firsthand knowledge of the workings of a volunteer-run organization (which is what Mormon Artist swiftly became) but also got me giddy about the undercurrent I was sensing — that times were changing and that Mormon arts were really starting to come into their own

Fast-forward to June. I read about (a new print-on-demand magazine publisher) and got an itch to put together a magazine. The next day I was cooking scrambled eggs for breakfast and thinking about what kind of a magazine I’d like to do, and when I asked myself what kind of a magazine I wanted to read, the answer jolted me in an instant: Mormon arts. And here we are.

Q. 2- Since I have known you, you come across as very passionate about the Mormon Arts. Where did this passion come from, what about the arts and Mormonism (and that specific combination) ignites your interest?

I’ve been interested in the arts for as long as I can remember, both as a consumer and more particularly as a creator. It’s what excites me most. Building off of that, I’ve always seen the gospel as being whole-souled, encompassing every aspect of life, reflected in every facet. It’s just how things are, and the arts are part of that. While the artist isn’t automatically any more spiritual than the lawyer or the bricklayer or the stay-at-home mom, I am an artist, and every time I remember that God is the quintessential artist and the Creator, I get shivers of excitement. Both the arts and the gospel help me understand what it means to be human — and what it means to be like God.

Q. 3- Tell us a little about yourself. Your background, education, interests, etc.

A Utah native, I was homeschooled for most of my childhood and encouraged by my parents to pursue my interests, and the love of learning which I caught from them has been the driving force behind most of what I do. I went to high school and edited the school newspaper and literary magazine while there, served a mission in Thailand, and graduated from BYU in English Linguistics.

After graduation I thought I was going to become a librarian and so I started pursuing a master’s in library science, but after a semester and a half I realized it wasn’t for me and dropped out. I’ve been working at the BYU library for the past two years, first in Special Collections and now as a web designer.

I love books. I love love love books. My apartment is full of them, and I have a devil of a time trying to stop buying them (Amazon, I’m talking to you). I mean, I work in a library. (Which I do use; I usually have between 30 and 60 books checked out at any one time.) Most of my artistic output has been in writing (primarily plays and blogs so far) and design (book/graphic/web), though I play the piano and enjoy dabbling in composition and digital painting from time to time. I also find it regrettably too easy to talk about myself.

Q. 4- What has been the greatest challenge with the magazine so far? The greatest reward?

I’m not sure there have been any great challenges so far. There’ve been a few small things along the way — missed deadlines, the last-minute stress of getting an issue out, figuring out how to deal with the influx of volunteers — but for the most part things have gone swimmingly well. Part of that, I think, is being flexible. When I realized I had nowhere near enough money to make the magazine succeed in print (and that 98% of the magazine’s readers were reading it on the web or printing out the PDF themselves), it was easy to shift the focus to the web, and so what could have been a challenge ended up being a boon. Constraints often foster creativity.

The greatest reward has been the people — the interviewees, the volunteers, and the readers. Everyone is friendly and more than willing to help, and the feedback I’ve gotten has been unanimously positive.

Q. 5- In the interviews for the magazine so far, what has surprised you the most? What about these Mormon artists caught you off guard?

Not really anything that I can think of; I tried to get rid of all my preconceptions beforehand so I could field things as they came, and it seems to have worked.

Q. 6- What’s your realistic assessment of the Mormon Arts right now? Where have they come from? Where are they now? Where are they going? What disciplines are in the healthiest condition right now? Which are struggling?

The LDS arts world has been laying a solid foundation for decades now, and it looks like it’s just about reached critical mass for an explosion of talent. The future is very, very bright. (Yes, I realize that the economy is tanking, but I think we’ll see a lot of good art coming out of that.) We’re at different stages in different areas — film, for example, is a newer medium, and so we’re still learning — but I’d say all the disciplines seem to be doing just fine. Artists are putting out good work and they’re getting better at it, and that’s all that really matters.

Q. 7- Issue three just came out. What’s special about this particular issue? In what way has each issue progressed from the last?

I did the first two issues entirely by myself, which worked out well enough but wasn’t very sustainable, and so I opened the floodgates to volunteers (over sixty on my list at the moment), and it’s largely their efforts that went into Issue 3. Volunteers did all the interviews, all the transcribing, all the photography, and most of the editing. Not only does this give more people an opportunity to help out and get experience, but it also makes it possible for us to expand, both in size and in frequency.

Q. 8- The magazine has chiefly consisted of interviews so far. What other material are you hoping to add, and what do you think that will do for the magazine?

I want to keep interviews at the core of the magazine, since in the end it’s really all about the people. But as part of covering the LDS arts world, we’re going to start running feature articles (on both people and events), columns (from both artists’ and consumers’ perspectives), and more of the artists’ work, along with whatever else fits. Long-term, we’re looking at starting some contests and getting a forum going to foster more discussion and collaborations. All of these will hopefully help meet the needs of the people and fit those three goals I mentioned earlier.

Q. 9- At first you were hoping to do a print magazine along with the PDF and online copies, but had to discontinue. How big would Mormon Artist have to get before you would consider that again?

Big enough to pay for it. No, really, we’re sort of a halfling right now — each issue of the magazine is available on our website in a blog-style format and as a PDF, which we then upload to MagCloud so people can order a hard copy if they want. Since we’re already doing all the design work for a print edition, the only thing keeping the magazine from going print is the cost of printing. When we feel fairly confident that we can sell 2,000 to 3,000 print copies, it’ll become a possibility. (I realize, of course, that advertising is the traditional way to get funding for that, and we may eventually go that route, but for now I’d rather focus on making a really good magazine and getting the word out there, and the web is the perfect vehicle for that. It also happens to be free, which helps.

Q. 10- Is it intimidating to approach any of these artists for interviews? Are you ever going to try and bag any of the “big” Mormon artists, say, Orson Scott Card, James Christensen, Brandon Sanderson, Shannon Hale, David Archuleta or Stephenie Meyer?

Originally yes, it was intimidating, but when I realized that they’re all real people just like you and me, it became easy. (I should add that pretty much everyone I’ve talked to has been very approachable and friendly. If I’d gotten Rottweilers and slammed doors instead, I’d probably be more intimidated.)

We’re actually running an interview with Brandon Sanderson in our next issue, so yes, we’re going for the “big” game. And we plan to interview everyone else on that list at one time or another. Going back to the third goal up at the top, though, my aim has been to provide a mix of famous and undiscovered, and so I’m just as interested in the small folk as I am in the people everyone’s heard of. (But I’ll admit that the famous people draw in a lot more readers).

Q. 11- What do you have lined up for us in the next several months? What’s in store for your readers?

In Issue 4 we’ve got interviews with Brandon Sanderson (as mentioned), Ric Estrada (comic book artist), Crawford Gates (composer of “Our Savior’s Love” and the Hill Cumorah Pageant music), Dani Jones (an illustrator), and others, along with a feature on the LDS Film Festival and a special book arts section on letterpress and bookbinding. Issue 5 is still forming, with Cameron Moll (lead web designer for the Church) and Merrill Jenson (composer of the music to Legacy) among the lineup.

Q. 12- In the current issue, you mentioned trying to get an international flavor for the magazine? What strides are you going to take Mormon Artist out of the Jell-O Belt?

Our focus on the web is actually helping the most with this; if we were a print magazine right now, we would probably be very much restricted to the United States, whereas on the web we’re much more accessible to members around the globe. We’re interviewing more international artists (like Jonna Pirinen in our latest issue, and in Issue 4 we’re running an interview with a brother who wrote one of the songs in the Italian hymnbook), and before long I’d like to get the magazine translated into other languages (starting with Spanish).

Q. 13- What would be the legacy that you want Mormon Artist to leave?

A sense of community among LDS artists around the world, along with a rekindled passion for creating art worthy of our Father’s approval and a better understanding of how faith and the arts work together. Basically, I want people to get really, really excited about Mormon arts.

8 thoughts on “Mormon Artist Magazine: Interview With Ben Crowder”

  1. “The LDS arts world has been laying a solid foundation for decades now, and it looks like it’s just about reached critical mass for an explosion of talent.”

    “Basically, I want people to get really, really excited about Mormon arts.”

    Ben. Dude. I’m totally in this arena. We *need* to talk, ha, ha.

  2. Great interview. You’re doing wonderful things with your magazine, Ben, and I love your enthusiasm. I also love this line: “I’ve always seen the gospel as being whole-souled, encompassing every aspect of life, reflected in every facet.” Great sentiment. Pretty sentence.

  3. Very classy magazine, Ben. Your passion for Mormon Arts is definitely infectious.

    As a poet, I have to ask this question (if not just for you, but for/to any others out there interested in the development of Mormon poetry): Since you want to keep interviews at the core of the magazine, how much poetry are you planning to publish (I’m assuming as much as people will submit, but that’s just an assumption)? And, expert that you now are *wink*, do you (or anyone else out there in cyberspace) see room in the Mormon arts scene for an online magazine dedicated to Mormon poetry (something similar, perhaps, to Mormon Artist)?

  4. I think it all depends on what you mean by room, Tyler. As you hint at, poetry actually receives quite a bit of attention from all the major journals — Sunstone, Dialogue, Segullah and Irreantum all run poetry even in issues where they don’t run much if any fiction. Even BYU Studies includes poetry in its pages. And the Ensign has run considerably (in fact, way) more poetry than fiction.

    And yet, I sometimes get the feeling that poetry is (how do I put this delicately?) included as filigree. A way to take up a page or two and break up the other content. A way to add a certain high-brow-ness to a publication without really engaging with the form itself.

    I don’t think that any of the mentioned publications should stop publishing poetry. Poets have a difficult enough time. But I do think that if poets want to interact more with each other and really develop a community and a field of interest, then something — whether its an online mag or a chapbook series (either electronic or print or both) or an electronic anthology (plus print on demand edition) would be very cool.

    Although as I mentioned before, I’ve got some other projects in the fire so even if I have some ideas of what could/should be done, my involvement would be minimal (although of course I’m always happy to help as much as I can).

  5. .

    For the record, I’ve been following MA since its inception and it has only been getting better.

    Keep it up!

  6. I sometimes get the feeling that poetry is (how do I put this delicately?) included as filigree. A way to take up a page or two and break up the other content. A way to add a certain high-brow-ness to a publication without really engaging with the form itself.

    I get the same feeling, though Irreantum did devote an issue to poetry a couple of years ago (8.1 [2006]). Even then, however, the majority of page space was still given to short stories. Admittedly, this is in part due to the compression of poetry vs. the sprawl of prose; but, I kind of wish the whole issue had been just poems or explorations of the directions of Mormon poetry.

    I also agree that none of these publications should stop publishing poetry. Even if the audience for poetry is small (as it always has been, as it may always be), we poets (speaking for me, anyway) like to see the kind of work fellow poets are creating.

    It would be nice, though, to have that place you speak of, where Mormon poets could “interact more with each other and really develop a community and a field of interest”—something like Mormon Artist is becoming or like Segullah is for Mormon women. And though you’ve got your projects in the fire, Wm., and I’ve got a few things stewing myself, I’m invested enough in the idea to head something up (if I can get some help), whether that be an online mag or a chapbook series or an electronic anthology (all digital with print-on-demand options). I’ve even been wondering about the possibility of organizing a session at the AML conference or a reading around that time in which Mormon poets could read their work.

    I think any of these things would be very cool for us poets. And I think I’m ready to stop thinking and talking about it and take a flying leap, like you have, Ben.

    Any volunteers to take flying lessons with me?

  7. Yak: We’ll talk. 🙂

    Angela and Th.: Thanks!

    Drome: Me too. 🙂

    Tyler and William: At this point I don’t really know how much poetry we’ll end up publishing. I’m sure, however, that there’s plenty of room for a Mormon poetry magazine, and I think the same applies to almost every other artistic discipline I can think of. The field is white and ready to harvest. 😉 Go ahead and take that flying leap and you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish. And I think a magazine devoted solely to Mormon poetry would be very cool. 🙂

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