Art in Meetinghouse Foyers

Today, the LDS Church announced that all Church meetinghouse foyers will feature only 22 approved art images for the walls. I’m deeply disappointed by the collection the Church has chosen.

The Church is clearly trying to focus on images of Jesus Christ and moving away from images that are particular to Mormons. Only two of the images are scenes from the Book of Mormon, for example. As someone who has a deep love for LDS art, I love the idea of featuring works on our walls that center around Christ. But the figure of Christ that consistently appears in every single image in this group is comely, quiet, unemotional, and extraordinarily European. With so little variation in how Jesus appears, this collection encourages members to believe that we know exactly how Jesus looks. And, it turns out, how Jesus looks is white. Perhaps this take on the Messiah should not surprise us. Every single one of the nine artists featured is white as well.

The second problem that immediately stands out is the lack of women in these images. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us either: seven of the nine approved artists are men. Of the figures that are clearly identifiable as male or female, I counted 119 males (13 of them boys) and 22 females (10 of them girls) in this collection. Of the very few women who appear at all, most are incredibly attractive. There is no variation in body type and almost none in skin tone. The women look down, holding children and household objects. They show no emotion except for devotion.

Why do these things matter? Educators talk about the concept of “windows and mirrors.” Mirrors are stories (in art or literature) that reflect back to you your own cultural experience and help you process and build your own identity. Windows are stories that help you look out into the world, that show you others’ cultural experiences and how they are similar and different from your own. Both are critically important to help us understand who we are and how we can connect to others. These images serve only as mirrors for a small subset of the LDS population. They do not give LDS people of color an image of the divine that reflects their lives. They do not give women a sense of the potential of their relationship with Christ. They do not prompt white members to look out beyond their own narrow experiences.

In a time when art by Mormon artists is of higher quality and more available than ever before, there is simply no excuse for this narrowing up of the way we convey the human relationship to the divine. If Church leadership wants to focus on images of Christ, then our church walls should collectively house artwork that showcase the expansiveness of a Christ that is glorious and awesome enough for the entirety of the human experience. In that spirit, here is a list of six pieces of art that would more closely represent a Messiah for all the world. 

Kathleen Peterson, Parting Breads

Parting Bread

Jorge Cocco Santángelo, Gethsemane

Rose Datoc Dall, Loaves and Fishes

Loaves and Fishes, by Rose Datoc Dall, 25x40 Signed Limited ...

J. Kirk Richards, Cristo CXXXIIA 

Caitlin Connolly, A Believing Woman

a believing woman (12x16, 16x20) — CAITLIN CONNOLLY

Kwani Povi Winder, They Brought Their Children

These are images that are already available and some are already owned by the Church. I know that if the Church put out a call, many LDS artists from around the world would be honored to share their vision of Christ. A truly global church does not see Jesus in just one way. The in our foyers should offer something to inspire and comfort every single person who enters our buildings. With such abundant offerings from LDS artists, it would be truly tragic to not partake.

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15 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    Great response, MargaretOH. I would love it if Church leaders could see their list of 22 paintings as a starting point, and use suggestions you’ve made to expand it. I’m afraid they’re more likely to consider the issue solved for a decade or two, though, before revisiting it. If we’re lucky.

  2. Di says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. It’s bothered me for a long time that the art used in our churches reflects such a white European gaze.

  3. Kimberly says:

    Hear, hear!

  4. Mortimer says:

    Damn you, Salt Lake bureaucrats and your thoughtless ethno-centric exportation of Utah culture! (I’m not taking this down or apologizing for saying that!)

    A woman in our ward was a talented artist. She painted a beautiful landscape from church history that has hung on the wall of the meetinghouse when after decades of saving, our little community was finally able to build. It would rank highly in the church’s international art competition, were it to ever be entered, or it could grace the walls of a temple (it’s that good). It was her way of worship, praise, and testimony-sharing.

    To all the LDS artists across the across the globe whose works will come down, my heart mourns with you. Please keep creating! You are needed and valued! To all future artists, please continue learning and growing and make quality faith-filled art reflective of your diversity and testimony. It is needed, if not in our meeting houses now, I know it will be appreciated sometime in the future. Don’t let your generation’s testimony and voice be silenced.

  5. jpv says:

    Correlation seems to have a bias for Del Parson’s Christ–shame they couldn’t have included this image of Him:

  6. Mortimer says:

    Why am I not surprised the selection of art is deeply misogynistic and racist? When men are included, they are participating in ordinances or callings at or near eye level With Christ (Christ sending forth the 12 and the last supper). Women, are receiving instruction or being healed or holding children at his feet.

    One exception is Parson’s Mary and Martha picture which, I’d argue depicts a story that is frequently misunderstood in Mormonism as well as in most other Christian denominations. When simply and more commonly constructed, it is NOT complimentary to women or women’s roles.

    So, knowing that, why not choose the famous picture of Mary witnessing the resurrected Christ by the pink lilies? (It’s lds, I don’t know the painter though). Oh yeah- women witnessing and the current feminist argument for women to do more in church per her example is a sore point. That one got booted, despite our deep millennialist and resurrection theology.

    And the picture of Christ with the black child is meant well, but, like the picture of Christ in the clouds among a host of white-only angels, is extremely tone deaf to racial connotations. I’m cringing thinking that it will likely grace every ward building on the African continent and in areas with higher black populations.

    One out of the 18 pieces shared was painted by a woman.

    I find it interesting that J Kirk Richards and Minerva Teicharts works we’re looked over. No impressionistic styles were included- only stark realism, as if to say- “we’re not going to give you a fuzzy idea about Christ, but let you see him clearly”.
    Which has pluses and minuses. Impressionistic works obscure race to a large degree. And, artistic styles are utilized to bring forward aspects of the subject matter not possible in photographic realism. Other styles could have been a powerful tool to tell a story, send an even deeper message about Christ, but – naaaah! Realism it is. (Probably because artists were not involved in the choosing and It shows.)

    And, why isn’t the first vision part of the collection? It features Christ and God the Father, in one of the most significant appearances in all of history. Was it excluded because it’s not mainstream? (Yes).

  7. Rachel says:

    Something really bothers me about a picture of white Jesus holding a black baby in Africa…
    This is an insightful post. I don’t know that much about art, but I have thought about this with our hymns and music. All of our hymns are musically based on European/Protestant choral style. Only a few instruments are allowed in sacrament. We are missing out on a lot of great music. It does feel racist to say that gospel music (the style gospel, not music about the gospel) is irreverent.
    And I always found it ironic (now I think it’s just sexist) that we couldn’t sing hymns about Mary because we didn’t want to seem like we were worshiping her but we have plenty of hymns praising and hailing prophets.

    • Jaya says:

      That picture unsettles me for the same reason.

      I would agree that it would be racist to say gospel music is “irreverent,” I also note that Black members of the church I have spoken with have mixed-to-negative feelings about the possibility of gospel music being performed in sacrament meeting by White individuals who know neither the history or the struggle behind the music. I share this concern. It would be difficult if not impossible to create a representative hymnal with existing historical music without appropriation and pain caused of a different kind.

      A call for newly created art of all kinds (music, painting) could possibly help offer representation of voices and avoid some of the painful issues of simply including gospel music.

      • Rachel says:

        There would be a lot to consider and unpack but I would love to find a feasible way to incorporate gospel into our hymnal. But I think the most important step is for leaders and music directors to stop saying that it is “irreverent”.

  8. Karen Black says:

    “All Church meetinghouses will feature only 22 approved art images for the walls” – not the entire meetinghouses, just the foyer. The other artwork can still be in the Relief Society room, hallways, etc.

    • Rachel says:

      That’s true! Hopefully the other rooms and halls will have some diversity. I understand why the church would want to have the art in the foyers/entrances focus on Christ. But I think the members of each meetinghouse should have some flexibility in selecting the art, especially in a worldwide church. Each culture has its own artistic style. I believe that temple artwork is often influenced by the region’s culture.

  9. Mortimer says:

    I give Liz Lemon Swindle (the only female “approved” artist) major props! Although she’s a realist rather than an impressionist, she is something of an LDS Mary Cassatt in that she depicts intimate scenes from church history through a female lens, with subject matter men would never attempt (Jospeh brushing out Emma’s hair, Emma escaping across a river with her children with the manuscripts in her skirt, a chicken with gathering chicks under wing, etc.). I’m glad she broke through the glass ceiling in the church office building- correlated art department, room 3b. You go girl.

    That being said… the painting with the black baby in Jesus’ arms is disturbing to me for the following reasons:

    1) The image of a white-ish adult (clothed, with resources) coming in to scoop up black babies (here without clothes) reminds me of cultural and racial superiority narratives.

    2) I don’t know how she paints, but this is an ultra-realistic (photographic) image and the man’s face looks like another person to me, not Jesus.

    3) Since the only depiction of a black person on this list is a baby, whereas white people are disciples, apostles, and Gods. it feels infantilizing of an entire race.

    4) All the other pictures are scripturally literal, this one is far more interpretative. What is the artist saying, and since the Prophet correlated it world-wide, is this portrait (like hymns) now doctrinal?

    4) Jesus and the child look traumatized. What is the message of this artwork? Is it a statement against racism and the long history of violence and hatred toward black persons? Could it wake us up to Trevon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, the inexcusable History and present-day disparities of race, culture and poverty? If so, this type of “disturbing art” is good in that it pricks our conscious, makes us uncomfortable, brings us out of our comfort zones, and teaches us something. If this is the purpose, let’s put this in every foyer, branding our consciences.

  10. Elisa says:

    I love the alternative pieces you posted. Sigh.

  11. Angela C says:

    I would take the art you featured over any of the Church approved ones in a New York minute! Art should inspire us to contemplate. The approved artwork is so realistic that it doesn’t really make me think at all. I’m not sure what vision it portrays. It fairly clubs you over the head with its literalism. I love the cubist looking Gethsemane you posted in particular. Blerg!

  1. May 15, 2020

    […] LDS Arts in New York City, 2019.  Shared here to publicly add to the conversation about the newly announced requirements for meetinghouse foyer art […]

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