#VisibleWomen: Women in Church Art

relief-society-general-presidency-2012-busath-1031310-gallery-noticeThis week I decided to do an informal survey of the representation of women in my ward building.  I had the general impression that there were few women, but I decided to actually go through and count.  The numbers are a little imperfect, for several reasons.  First, I did not have access to any of the male-only rooms which were locked, including two Bishop’s offices, the Stake offices, the High Council Room and the Clerk’s office.  Second, many paintings and posters feature images that include very small or indistinct figures that can’t really be counted one way or the other.  A few paintings include androgynous angelic figures that I decided not to count either way.  As part of my survey I included both framed paintings and images on bulletin boards, but excluded any snapshots or local images.

In my ward the various auxiliaries are assigned bulletin boards to decorate as they choose, but most feature pictures taken  from church magazines, lesson manuals or the Gospel art kit.  A few have posters produced by the church or affiliated organizations promoting conferences and programs. I figured since I was doing the survey I might as well keep track of ethnic representation as well, since most church art tends to depict the people of the Americas or the Fertile Crescent as looking like they are from northern Europe.  Accordingly, my stat numbers of non-white people reflect only individuals who are clearly represented as not having pale skin or light hair, rather than people who are supposedly of a non-white ethnicity (the Nephites) but actually look like Vikings. Here are my findings.

Representation of people with special needs or disabilities: 1 boy with Down syndrome on a pass-along card tacked to a board.

Number of non-white women depicted: 2

Number of non-white men depicted: 11

Total number of women depicted: 48

Total number of men: 245

By far the best room was the nursery.  Their bulletin board was mostly decorated with black and white drawings of children that had not been colored in and could plausibly be from many different ethnic backgrounds.  The number of boys and girls shown was roughly equal, thrown off mostly by pictures of baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost which added a few more male figures.  The nursery wall featured 11 girls and 16 boys.  There was one picture in color that had one child that looked white, one that was possibly Hispanic and one that was of African descent.

The worst offender was the multi-purpose room, which for our ward is used as a Seminary classroom during the week and on Sunday gets used for youth Sunday School and Young Women.  The numbers here reflect that it is a Seminary classroom. The bulletin board is covered in pictures of Joseph Smith and other past prophets because this year the topic of study is the Doctrine and Covenants and Church history.  There are also the portraits of all the current Apostles and First Presidency.  The result is an incredibly male room for the Young Women to meet in.  There were 7 women, all white.  Two were on pass-along cards and the rest were on a small image of the organization of the Relief Society.  I had to peer closely to count them.  There were 102 images of men, only one of whom was non-white.

When we talk about the visibility of women, church art is one of the most literal ways to interpret that phrase.  The problem here is two-fold.  On one level the issue is a local one; the framed art is probably chosen by local leaders and facilities managers, while the bulletin boards are decorated at the discretion of various auxiliaries.  However, local choices do not entirely account for the discrepancy.  Church art kits heavily feature men with sparing images of women.  Few pictures show a woman as the central figure.  Women are generally depicted as members of a crowd or secondary personages rather than the focus of the painting. If you have access to a Gospel Art kit you could do a survey similar to mine to see this difference yourself.

While local leaders have discretion in decorating their boards, the materials they have to choose from are still heavily weighted towards men, and scriptural figures are almost all represented as being white.  This makes it very challenging to create a space that visually reflects our doctrine that all children of God are equally valuable.

I was so appalled by my findings that I wrote to my Bishop immediately describing the problem that I saw.  He has been recently called and I don’t know him very well, so I was uncertain of the reception my words might get.  Still, I feel this issue is very important and I know that I have limited authority to make changes to our facilities and I have no funding to do so.  The following is a portion of my letter; I’m cutting out anything personal, as well as the introductory pleasantries.  I told about my survey and described my findings, then said:

     I recognize that the Savior is a man and so of course he will be represented over and over and I have no objection to that.  But I feel that the overall discrepancy sends a subtle but consistent message to our girls, young women and adult women that they are coming in a distant second.  Maybe one place to start would be adding pictures of the women of the auxiliary presidencies, as we have depictions of the prophet and apostles.  There are large blank spaces on walls that could benefit from art depicting women of the scriptures or church history.  Most of the classrooms have no art at all.
       I know that tending to the needs of people is your first priority.  I just wanted to mention to you that these issues are real and non-trivial.  There are many small changes we could be making as a church to send the message that women are vitally important to the kingdom of God without doing anything to doctrine or even policy.
      Thank you so much for all that you do, I think you’re doing a fabulous job as our Bishop.  I know that none of these problems are your fault, but you have potentially much more power and influence than I ever could.  Though not everyone is conscious of these discrepancies, not thinking about it consciously doesn’t mean there is no impact of visible inequality.

To my utter delight, he wrote back quickly and told me that he agreed the issue was important and that he would determine a funding source for new art. He said his ideal would be to have a selection committee of 2-3 women who could decide on some new paintings to hang on the walls.  I thanked him for listening to me and taking the issue seriously, to which he responded “It’s the right thing to do.”  One place to start as we ask for greater visibility is to talk to our local leaders, who may well be sympathetic.

Unfortunately, the larger problem still exists.  Though my Bishop heartily endorsed the idea of displaying the women leaders of the church along with our male leaders, I happen to know that you can’t buy prints of their portraits.  I wrote to Salt Lake asking for such portraits myself and they told me they weren’t available.  Of course you can print your own based on the images online, but this is difficult, can be expensive and many leaders might be uncomfortable with that option.  I ask that the church art department make the formal portraits available through distribution, as the pictures of the Apostles and First Presidency are.

The Gospel Art kit could use some serious revision.  We should depict people of the scriptures they way the were more likely to look, which is not blonde and fair-skinned.  This small step could make our buildings and classes  much more inclusive spaces for people of all ethnic backgrounds.  We need more art that shows women engaged in building the kingdom of God.  A church history bulletin board should be easy to cover with pictures of the history of the Relief Society and the great women who have built the organization.  Our prophets are important, but so are the women of God. There are many scriptural heroines that have no depiction readily available to members.

As I walk around my building I see hundreds of ways to be a man of God.  Men are shown blessing the sick, worshipping the Savior, listening to Christ teaching, administering ordinances, performing miracles, praying, pondering and so much more.  Women are generally shown in the background or as wives.  Our ward had no images of individual heroines such as Mary, Deborah, Esther, Abish or Ruth, and the church art department offers few such options.  How does a woman of God act? What does she do?  We sometimes talk about our divine nature, but the visual message we’re sending undercuts those teachings by giving women at best a marginal supporting role instead of the central place women occupy in God’s plan.

We can do better.  We can make local changes, but for meaningful and widespread visibility of women in church art, we need the support and endorsement of leaders in Salt Lake.  There are innumerable talented artists the world over.  The church has funds.  Let’s make our houses of worship places of beauty and inclusiveness by producing and distributing art that reflects the importance of women and the diversity of God’s children.

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10 Responses

  1. Tessa says:

    Yay for your awesome bishop.

  2. Joni says:

    I’m currently looking for an unframed print of Mierva Teichert’s Queen Esther for my home – it’s a beautiful image OF a woman BY a woman. Seems like a good place to start.

  3. Katie says:

    I thought your investigation, letter, and the response were all fabulous. As I recall, the BYU art museum has prints you can buy at reasonable prices. Might be worth looking there. Good luck! I worship in an old building that has almost no correlated art in it, and I love it. But it could definitely use more pictures of women. All of the past RS presidents’ portraits hang in the rs room, which always makes me happy.

  4. Patty says:

    I really like Kathleen Peterson’s artwork. I cut one picture out of the Church News with the idea that it would translate well into a fabric hanging. We have a large “woman at the well” picture in the RS room. I plan to look around more at church to see what’s there, esp. in Primary and YW’s room. I love your reference to Viking Nephites. Yes!!! I surely didn’t like being expected to admire the originals of those unpleasant pictures in the Conference Center when we took the tour.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    I love your investigative work here, Em! I think the representation of women in art in Church buildings and in our supplemental material is so important, and as I watch our amazing art editor, MargaretOH, find such beautiful art by Mormon women depicting women, I feel like this is an issue that shouldn’t be hard to fix.

    I think how the women are depicted is just as vital in this discussion. I feel a little silly linking a post I wrote a few years ago, but it talks about how women are depicted in the Gospel Art Kits and examples of art that we could use to empower women: http://www.the-exponent.com/the-downtrodden-and-the-blessed-implicit-messages-in-lds-orgs-gospel-art-collection/

  6. Ziff says:

    I love that you did the survey, Em, and that your bishop is on board with making some changes. Most of all, though, I love how clearly you articulate this general problem, that as you point out so well, won’t be solved at the local level.

  7. Em says:

    I thought I would add an update for those interested in my ward specifically: the Bishop appointed a committee (me included) and gave us a budget of $300 to select new art for the building, less than a week after I brought it up. Kudos to a Bishop on the ball! I will add that the committee is all women, and we simply need to pick the art and tell him what we’ve chosen so he can order it officially.

    The bad news is that the art for walls must come from a church-approved website which does not have much diversity of options. Few if any of the paintings depict non-white people. Few of the images feature women at all, and of those many show women in a secondary or helpmeet type of depiction, rather than as heroines of the story. My Bishop was quick to see the problem and to encourage a solution, while also showing respect for women by giving the committee autonomy in making this choice. However, because the rules say we must choose from Salt Lake’s approved options, it will be very difficult to fix the problem of ethnic underrepresentation or to show women in a more heroic or central light. I’m thankful for a great Bishop. I call on Salt Lake to do as much as local leaders are willing to to create and facilitate a space that shows the diversity of God’s children and the strength of everyone.

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