Of Prophets and Artists: A Household of Faith Or A House Divided?

In the most recent General Conference of the LDS Church Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated the following:

“Not often but over the years some sources have suggested that the Brethren are out of touch in their declarations, that they don’t know the issues, that some of their policies and practices are out-of-date, not relevant to our times.
“As the least of those who have been sustained by you to witness the guidance of this Church firsthand, I say with all the fervor of my soul that never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth. I bear personal witness of how thoroughly good they are, of how hard they work, and how humbly they live. It is no trivial matter for this Church to declare to the world prophecy, seership, and revelation, but we do declare it. It is true light shining in a dark world, and it shines from these proceedings.”

There were many things that captured my attention during this last conference, but this statement is one that will stay with me for a long time to come. I don’t know why it is (at least not for a certainty), but there are many an intellectual, many an artist, many an actor, many a writer, (not to mention many a doctor, many a lawyer, many a housewife, many a business man, many a waiter, many a teenager, etc.) who are intent on casting accusing phrases or disparaging implications towards those who are in leadership within the LDS Church. From the Prophet to local bishops, intellectual or societal snipers aim their sites on the biggest targets available to them, for with leadership (especially courageous, outspoken leadership) always comes criticism. And many Mormon artists (being courageous and outspoken themselves) feel put upon when they feel out of sync with those who they term their leaders– when their supposed artistic expressions are disjointed from the leadership of an organization which they otherwise (hopefully) cherish.
Continue reading “Of Prophets and Artists: A Household of Faith Or A House Divided?”

The Importance of Being Ironic, Part Two

This is the second part of a two part series on irony.  The first part may be found here.  Irony is by nature a boundless subject, and while the temptation to go on and on about it is compelling (for a ironophile like myself), this will do for the blogging moment.  References for Part One and Part Two can be found at the end of this post. 

When we find ourselves to be irony’s dupes, we experience the sudden revelation the joke thrusts upon us: we are caught in the act, or the rug is pulled out from under us, or there is a box in a box in a box, all attractively wrapped but containing at the center nothing, or the center might not be in the middle of things. Somehow we made the wrong choice or invested wholly in an incomplete idea. Thus we gain the pleasure of experiencing subsequent, perhaps inevitable rewards for our wrongheadness. Continue reading “The Importance of Being Ironic, Part Two”

The Importance of Chapbooks

After my post a week ago on the launch of a poetry chapbook, William commented:

Considering what a large role chapbooks play in the larger poetry community, I’m a bit suprised that there haven’t been more published for the Mormon literary market (even as small as it is).[see comment]

In response, I promised this post on Chapbooks and what their role is and can be. Continue reading “The Importance of Chapbooks”

Art: Images from BYU’s “Thoroughly Modern” exhibit

I don’t know how I missed this when I was writing my previous post on BYU’s “Thoroughly Modern: The ‘New Women’ Art Students of Robert Henri,” but the Museum of Art has posted an online gallery of selected works from the exhibit.

I wish that they had included links to slightly large versions, but here are my favorites:

1. “Women of Oaxaca” by Henrietta Shore (fourth on the page and pictured above)
2. “Chain Gang” by Margaret Law (eighth)
3. “Go Down Moses” by Hilda Belcher (tenth)
4. “Self-Portrait with Chinese Screen” by Florine Stettheimer (eleventh)

As you can tell, I tend to be drawn to paintings that use dark tones/colors and are representational but not realistic. I’m not sure what that means in art history/criticism terms, but from past experience I can say that I really like paintings that aren’t classicly impressionist — that have more earthy subjects (rather than, say, the somewhat ethereal flowers of Monet), but use a bit of the impressionist brushstroke and light.

“Thoroughly Modern” is on view through Aug. 27, 2005, at the BYU Museum of Art. Admission is free.

NOTE: Perceptive AMV readers may have noticed that I snuck “art” into my tag line above a couple of weeks ago. My original plan was to not include visual art as it’s not an area of expertise of mine, but I’ve found it to be a compelling area in the world of Mormon arts and culture so I’ve reconsidered the scope of the blog.

Art: Kathryn Abajian on painter Ella Peacock

The University of Utah Press has just published “First Sight of the Desert: Discovering the Art of Ella Peacock” by Bay Area author Kathryn Abajian. The book — which combines memoir and biography — focuses on the life and art of Peacock, a relatively unknown 20th century Utah painter.

Abajian agreed to answer a few questions about the book (which can be ordered from University of Utah Press). Also note that Abajian will be involved in a series of readings and events related to the book — including the opening of an exhibit of Peacock’s work later this year at the Museum of Utah Art and History.

I doubt that many AMV readers have ever heard of Ella Peacock. Would you mind telling us a little bit about her?

Many people outside of the art community in Utah haven’t heard of Ella Peacock. She was the sort of person who hid her light under the bushel of privacy. She was modest, unassuming and unusual, especially in the small Mormon community of Spring City where she lived.

She was raised on the east coast, in Germantown, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Like lots of easterners, I imagine, she pictured the West as a place of great potential. In fact, she said, “Of all my family, I wanted to move west the most and I was the last to leave!” She attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women on scholarship and graduated in 1927, then put aside her painting just to survive the Depression. She married late, then ended up supporting her small family (one son) working as a draftsman for twenty-eight years. It wasn’t until she finally moved west that she began to paint seriously. Then she blossomed!

How did you first become aware of Peacock and her work? And — related to that, how did the book come about?

I learned about Ella Peacock accidentally. I was driving around Sanpete County one day and took a side road to Spring City, National Historic District, according to an old wooden sign on Highway 89. This was in 1980 and my husband was from Sanpete County. I was there with our family on a summer visit. So that afternoon, I practically stumbled on an amazing woman with a house full of wonderful art. Walking into her house that day changed my day and the next decade of my life.

I didn’t start thinking about writing a book until years later. I think it was when I learned that Ella had donated a large number of paintings to BYU’s new Museum of Art and she was in her eighties. I thought it would be important to document her life, so art students, at least, would know her story. So when I was on summer break, for many years, I visited Ella in Spring City and the documentation grew. It didn’t become a book for many years.

A few examples of Peacock’s work can be seen on . But how would you describe her paintings?

Her paintings look as though they’re painted in another century practically. They are nothing like current styles of representational or impressionist art. The reason is that Ella painted in the style she knew, the one she learned in the 1920s. So her work documents important history in the old buildings of Sanpete County and the Utah desert’s ageless landscape, sights you can see today, but in a style from another era. Her work is most like other Philadelphia regional impressionists, one group especially — The Philadelphia Ten — a group of women who were a generation before Ella and some of whom she knew from art school. Her paintings evoke the California impressionists from the early part of the 20th century as well, paintings that came about during the Arts and Crafts Movement. In fact, Ella lived many of the ideals of that movement.

The blurb on your Web site suggests that you approached the book as part biography, part personal essay? Is that a fair characterization? How do your own experiences figure into the book?

Yes, the book blends memoir and biography. I’d originally intended to write a straight biography and actually completed an entire draft. Then I started getting questions from my writers’ group, from editors and anyone who read any of it, actually, asking about my involvement in Ella’s story. So many people wanted to know why I was interested in her and her work. To me that was like asking why I like art or why I read. It seemed a given to me, especially that anyone who met Ella would be fascinated by her and would want to know more. Right about that time, I met the perfect editor, Dawn Marano, who worked then for the University of Utah Press as Acquisitions Editor and worked occasionally as a developmental editor. She made the difference — encouraged me to find the nexus of my life experience and Ella’s. She was unfailingly supportive and insightful.

So the book developed slowly. It became what it is — a narrative structured around ten of Ella’s images, each one lending a theme for a chapter. In each chapter, I try to tell two stories — Ella’s and mine. During the years I came to know Ella, my entire personal and professional life changed dramatically — notably, I left a marriage and a church I’d long known. But it was only in the reflection that writing requires that I realized that the impact of those changes was directly influenced by, and symbolic of, my quest to know Ella.

What role did Mormonism play in Peacock’s life?

Ella was a Mormon woman who did exactly what she wanted to do, an unusual concept to me at the time (when I met her, I’d been a converted member of the church for nearly thirty years). She and her husband converted when she was in her late fifties, but she never completely assimilated into the rules and responsibilities that typical church membership implies. She told me she was drawn to the church because of her slight exposure to it in the 1930s on a road trip west. And she told me she really wanted to learn about the church because she wanted to learn about schools in Utah for her son to attend. My research told me much more about her motivations. Ella was the sort of woman who didn’t tolerate frivolity in any form and, though she remained “true” to the church’s teachings for the most part, she didn’t embrace the social lifestyle aspects of it.

How was her work received while she was alive? What was her reaction to the public reaction to her work?

Ella’s work was well received when she was alive, but her attitude toward marketing her work nearly sabotaged it. She was a very private person and didn’t enjoy (and refused to attend) art openings. She enjoyed the honor and loved being appreciated, but she was uncomfortable in social situations.

As she aged and her memory and hearing failed, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to communicate intelligently at a reception. Thus, when Robert Redford asked her to participate a second year at his Sundance Institute art exhibit, she refused. She even felt uncomfortable when a San Francisco gallery owner wanted to exhibit (and sell) her paintings and recalled them only weeks after sending them to San Francisco. She couldn’t be cajoled to attend the opening reception of an exhibit, called Eighty Something at Art Access Gallery that showed many of her paintings, even though she was offered chocolate and a nice hotel room.

Most people who own an Ella Peacock painting today will tell you a charming story of the process of acquiring it. She wasn’t readily inclined to sell paintings, and needed to be sure each painting went to the right home. But when she got to know and like someone, she would give her paintings away.

Thanks, Kathryn!

UPDATE 3.12.05: The best way to order the book is not from the University of Chicago Press Distribution Center (as originally reported), but directly from University of Utah Press. Or look for it at your local independent bookstore.

Art: ‘Redressing American Modernism’

The BYU Museum of Art has put together what looks to be a very interesting exhibit Thoroughly Modern: New Exhibition of Early 20th Century Women Artists (hat tip to Meridian Magazine). The exhibit opens Feb. 25 and features the work “of the women art students of Robert Henri — widely regarded as the most important American art teacher of the era.” And it includes “paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, textiles and furniture by 31 women artists who studied under Henri from the 1890s through the 1920s.”

The major drive behind this exhibit, no doubt, is that Mormon artist Minerva Teichert was one of Henri’s students.

What’s even more interesteing for me is the accompanying symposium — Redressing American Modernism: An Interdisciplinary Symposium — which will be held March 4-5 at BYU.

From the symposium’s press release:

“The symposium will be held in conjunction with a new exhibition Thoroughly Modern: The “New Women” Art Students of Robert Henri. The exhibition seeks to challenge the dominant narrative about modern art by examining the work of an unstudied group of modernist artists — the women students of the American artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929). The exhibited work has hitherto been marginalized by the modernist canon with its emphasis on the purely formalist elements of abstract art. Indeed, many artists have been excluded from the historical account, as this exhibition affirms.

“The symposium will address key issues raised by the “Thoroughly Modern” exhibition and its accompanying publication American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910 ““ 1945 (Rutgers 2005), an anthology of essays by 7 prominent scholars concerned with the re-contextualizing of American modernism. It is anticipated that these proceedings will contribute significantly to an expanded definition of American modernism and will help to restore a less biased appraisal of the artists, poets, musicians, composers, and writers of this period.”

The keynote speaker is Lois Rudnick , professor of English and American Studies, and director of the American Studies program at U. Mass. Boston. I’m not so interested in the papers being presented — although “Deflowering Flora: Banjos and Modernity in Late Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Culture” by Leo Mazow, curator of American Art at the Palmer Museum of Art, sounds intriguing — but rather the idea of BYU hosting the exhibit and symposium, and the whole project of casting it as an attempt to broaden the definition of American modernism and especially to include more women.

This seems to be part of the phenomenon I discuss in my post The Mormon angle to the Buster brouhaha. Perhaps there’s more hope for Mormons-as-ethnic-Americans than I thought.