A friend recently made a comment in a church meeting comparing the dark experience of European cathedrals with the light experience of LDS temple worship. I’m sure he didn’t state it even close to the way I heard it, which was ‘light art by our people, good; dark art by other people, bad.’ This is particularly painful to me, because I aspire to create works of art as moving as those by Bastien-Lepage, Georges de la Tour, Rouault, and countless others whose works draw pilgrims from all over the world precisely because they are so moving.
The Church is making an effort to put more original art in temples. That’s super exciting! I’m in love with this idea. As an artist who has repeatedly promised to consecrate my talents to the Church, this seems like an ideal opportunity to exercise those promises. I have, in fact, received several letters, emails, and phone calls inviting me to participate in this effort. “If we could,” they say, “we’d have Carl Bloch paint all of the art in the temples.” My heart beats faster and I imagine the possibilities. And then I hear the details. Apart from the fact that all images made for temples are restricted from being reproduced and offered to a wider audience, there are a number of artistic requirements that make my blood boil, and partly because they would disqualify even the great Carl Bloch. Let me outline three of those requirements here:
1. NO ABSTRACTION
This means no loose or washy backgrounds, no simplification of form, no reducing to principle or symbol. When I was contemplating submitting a proposal for a temple painting, a hero of mine and temple art veteran assured me “you’ll have to overpaint and noodle the life out of it.” Okay. Maybe those were the words I heard and not the words he said. But pretty close. Now take a look at the three details from Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda. Amazing how abstracted and simplified they are. I bet most of us hadn’t even noticed the guy on his hand shoes in the lower left corner of the painting. And it’s pretty bold of Carl Bloch to leave the man under the blanket so underfinished. Bold and moving, precisely because it heightens the tension between sickness and health, between light and dark.
2. CHRIST CANNOT BE IN SHADOW
First of all, why would an artist do this? Let me just give a few quick thoughts. Silhouetting Christ in shadow brings a feeling of reverence, much like not showing His face in the movie Ben Hur shows reverence. Depicting Christ in shadow is a compositional device used by artists to take away distracting details and heighten the importance and drama of the scene. It also allows light to emanate around Him. It doesn’t mean He’s evil, or the source of darkness. Surely He who descended below all things and experienced the greatest emotional and physical darkness might be depicted in the shadow, representing His connection to all mankind by virtue of His suffering and atonement. One of my favorite pieces from the recent BYU Museum of Art show of Carl Bloch’s work was his Daughter of Jairus. Notice how Christ is depicted mostly in shadow, and how this allows the light to emanate from around him.
Now take a look at this Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt, not to mention this popular painting of Christ walking on the water. Perhaps the former example might come off a bit spooky in the estimation of some, but the device itself is strikingly gorgeous:
3. TENSION MUST BE RESOLVED
In other words, the person must be healed and happy–not anticipating the healing. The storm must have completely passed. The following reasoning was explained to me (by a dear friend, I might add, and champion of my work:) ‘People come to the temple to seek peace. Often they are going through some struggle in their life, and so we want the art in the temple to bring them peace.’ My concern with this idea is it disqualifies any atonement painting, not to mention two of our favorites, Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda and his Daughter of Jairus. Note particularly in these two paintings, how the tension, the anticipation of being healed, is what makes the paintings so powerful. If, as my friend suggested, we come to the temple to seek peace and healing, won’t we relate to artwork that explores the anticipation of peace and healing rather than work that barely acknowledges any suffering? Think of the symbols in the endowment. The ones that move me the most refer specifically to Christ’s suffering. I am moved to hope by pieces when I look at them and say “I’m trying to get to Christ. I’m in need of healing. That’s me in that painting.”
According to Mormon teachings, our spiritual journey is one of experience, opposition, and learning. Indeed, if we’re meant to grapple with problems of eternal and universal scope and learn to be as God is, why would we want to reduce everything to a nice, happy, light package? Because of my title (which was really just a writing device to get your attention) I feel slightly duty-bound to mention Harry Potter here. Those stories are dark and full of tension, and yet they effectively communicate the idea of grappling with problems of good and evil. No story, least of all the story of the great plan of salvation, can be adequately addressed by only depicting the end of act three. All of the standard works, including the Book of Mormon, are packed with conflict from page 1 all the way to Moroni’s promise.
Okay, okay, okay. So you ask, but is the temple the right place? We don’t want the art to distract from the thing of real importance–the individual spiritual experience. And I agree. I went to the Nauvoo temple, and was quite distracted by the murals because they were painted by six heroes of mine. I couldn’t focus on anything else, I was so enamored with those murals. The flip side of that is, I get distracted by bland and mediocre paintings in temples as well. If I have to be distracted, please make it an excellent distraction!
Now you know what a state I’m in. Please forgive me if I have offended in any way. My hope is simply to get everyone to think more analytically about art, and perhaps to see things they haven’t seen before. As for Harry Potter and Carl Bloch, there may be more appropriate places for them aside from the temple. Perhaps the BYU Bookstore.
“So do you have a day job?”
I was recently asked this question. It’s a common question for artists to hear. The subtext could be any number of things, perhaps ‘If you’re full time, then why haven’t I ever heard of you?’ Or ‘How can an adult with children and a mortgage take time away from real life to do this?’ Or perhaps ‘I want to paint, but I’m afraid I’ll fail.’ Or maybe even ‘I hate you for doing what I have always wanted to do.’
Whatever the subtext, and no matter how many times I hear the question, it still shocks my system a little. Perhaps it’s because I disagree with the idea that artwork is better if it’s made by a full-time artist. I have many friends that teach or have professional careers in addition to their art, who make stunning pieces I would be proud to call my own.
But the stigma remains. And indeed, one of my earliest career goals was to make art my living. And so, with some trepidation for not knowing which of the subtexts I’m giving answer to, I respond, “Nope. I don’t have a day job. This is what I do.”
This weekend, I was reminded of the miracles of an art career by a long-time hero of mine, Gary Ernest Smith. Gary is known for his scenes of farms, fields, and farmers. His work is a marvelous blend of modern composition and surface, as if Maynard Dixon were painting in the 21st century. Gary’s paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are sought after by collectors far and wide.
But it wasn’t always this way. Gary reminded me of the time when he had two children, a third on the way, and thirty cents to his name. He barely had enough money for gas to get him around town to shop his artwork from place to place. How did he have the fortitude to continue on under those circumstances, rather than run back to the comforts of a traditional job? Gary’s philosophy is to believe there are no other options aside from the desired career. He persisted, hustled, and things began falling into place. And this type of thing has happened to him repeatedly throughout his career. “You have to remember,” says Gary “where you were right before results start to happen.” Clearly his belief in a higher power is a driving force behind his faith in himself and in his artwork.
And that made me think about my own story.
During the first months of my career, one artist counseled me, “You’ve got to send your wife to work. That’s the only way you can make it.” Well, frankly, we tried for a few weeks. Amy worked temp jobs, but nothing seemed to stick. We lived in a little basement apartment and kept our expenses very low. And so, with my first large paycheck from the sale of a painting (it was $8000, but it felt like $200,000 to me) we brought Amy home. Not that she doesn’t work, mind you. It’s more than a full time job trying to keep our current business organized, and Amy does a marvelous job.
In 2001, I decided to escape various pressures in the local art world to paint certain things, to do things a certain way, and to become known as a by-default religious artist. (“How could you take such an artist seriously, if he has only lived and worked in Utah County?” some people asked.) So we decided to move to Tennessee and keep our expenses low by staying with Amy’s folks for a year or two. The day before we left Utah, we awoke to the horrifying news that terrorists had flown airplanes into the World Trade Center towers. We arrived in Tennessee with no connections in the art world there, at a time when everyone was on the edge of their nerves. No one wanted to spend money. It looked like we were on the verge of war with Iraq. I rented a studio space in downtown Nashville. It was a mildewy building with substandard climate control. There were days in the winter when I was too cold to paint, and I just curled up on my junk couch and slept beneath a blanket. But finally, after seven months there, I had enough work to put up an art show. A friend of Amy’s parents was a builder. He offered to host an art show in one of his fabulous modern loft condos downtown. We set up the show and invited everyone we could think of. The turnout was great! The sales were zero. Meanwhile, our bank account was dwindling towards empty. Days passed, and an email came down through the Visual Arts Alliance of Nashville about a new gallery opening in Franklin, Tennessee. I invited the gallery owner to come see my show (other galleries had declined my invitation.) She came over, and we decided to take the whole show over to her new gallery. An opening reception came and went. Still no sales. One client was going to buy a painting until his wife discovered I was LDS and put an end to his purchase. Finally, when, from my perspective things were as low as they could be, a lady who had recently won the lottery came in and purchased one of my large pieces. We were back in business! And things started to grow from there.
Was that the last of my challenges? Of course not. Two years later, we moved back to Utah into the house we had purchase from my parents. I remember going to buy groceries for the first time (we had been living with Amy’s parents for two years and had benefited from their generosity in many ways, including groceries.) I felt sick to my stomach. How was I going to afford groceries for our growing family on top of the expenses of paying a mortgage and utilities? Well, with hard work and faith, things started to happen. Sales in Tennessee plus sales in Utah made it possible. Just like Gary says, after you do all you can do, miracles happen.
“But what about all those people that had to help you out along the way?” you might ask. Yes, Amy’s parents were generous to host us for two years. My parents gave us a great deal on their old house. My brother-in-law bought me a meal at a Village Inn once because I wouldn’t order anything on that “expensive” menu. Perhaps people even bought paintings out of pity. In the end, though, I dare say we have had to rely on the help of others less than many who have had traditional jobs, who, because of layoffs or transfers have had moments when they too needed help. My point here is not to boast, but rather to encourage those who are entertaining the thought of striking out on their own.
So, three things for you and me:
1. Reexamine your subtext when you ask “Do you do it full time?”
2. Remember where we were before the miracles happened.
3. Encourage those around us in their leaps of faith.
Thanks, Gary, for reminding me.
Thank you so much for your support of my new Christmas book, The Nativity. It looks like we are well on our way to selling out the first printing before Christmas! If you haven’t had a chance to look at the book or to pick a copy up for your family, don’t wait! It may be too late. For more information about the book, click here, but don’t order from the website.
UPDATE! The warehouse has sold out of books. To order a book, call Linda at the downtown SLC Deseret Book. She has remaining copies in her inventory. tel:801-328-8191.
And since I love the Christmas season and Christmas imagery, C Jane and I are auctioning away twelve angel paintings. 100% of the proceeds from the single painting that sells for the highest amount will be donated to C Jane’s charity of choice, The Center for Women & Children in Crisis. All other paintings proceeds will benefit the J. Kirk Richards center for one woman and four children. :) Place a bid by emailing me your full name, contact info, and the bid amount. Bid increments must increase at least $25. I’ll notify you by email each time you’re outbid. The auction will end at 9pm MST on Wednesday, December 5th.
Watch a time lapse of one of the angel paintings being created here, or scroll down, pick a painting, and start bidding! I hope you enjoy the paintings.
#1 Angel with Trump, (3.8 x 6.2 inches) 13.75 x 16 inches framed
High bid: $1000
And the painting goes to: TS
#2 Angel with Gift, (4.125 x 6.125 inches) 9.75 x 11.75 inches framed
High bid: $700
And the painting goes to: RH
#3 Three Angels Kneeling, (4.25 x 6.25 inches) 8.75 x 10.75 inches framed
High bid: $875
And the painting goes to: EJ
#4 Angel with Dove, (4.25 x 6.25 inches) 8.125 x 10.125 inches framed
High bid: $700
Current bidder’s initials: KH
#5 Angel of Empathy, (4.125 x 6.125 inches) 9 x 11 inches framed
High bid: $750
And the painting goes to: RW
#6 Angel in Prayer, (4.125 x 6.125 inches) 7 x 9 inches framed
High bid: $700
And the painting goes to: JBS
#7 Three Angels with Trumps, (4 x 4 inches) 9.375 x 9.375 inches framed
High bid: $625
And the painting goes to: EJ
#8 Angel Praying, (4.25 x 6.25 inches) 9.75 x 11.75 inches framed
High bid: $700
And the painting goes to: EJ
#9 Three Christmas Angels, (4.25 x 6.25 inches) 9.75 x 11.75 inches framed
High bid: $700
And the painting goes to: MH
#10 Christmas Angel, (4.125 x 6.125 inches) 10 x 12 inches framed
Minimum or current bid: $700
Current bidder’s initials: (N/A)
CLICK HERE to bid $700 or higher on this painting via email (Remember to clearly type your full name, your contact information, and your bid amount.)
#11 Two Angels with Trumps, (Each painting 2.75 x 7.5 inches) 4.75 x 9.5 inches framed
High bid: $1000
And the painting goes to: DO
#12 Angel with Harp, (painting 7 x 9 inches) 12.5 x 14.5 inches framed
High bid: $1300
And the painting goes to: GN
By now you may have heard, that in addition to the regular hard cover Nativity book (that’s coming out this week,) there will also be a limited edition leather bound book, sold with a limited edition hand-pulled etching, or intaglio print. That edition will be limited to about 100 copies, and will be available toward the end of November. If you want to reserve one of these limited edition sets (price will be between $240 and $300,) call Esther at the flagship Deseret Book: 1-801-328-8191. If she’s not there, ask for Linda or Jeff.
The purpose of this post is to show you the process of creating the etching. It’s a fascinating process, and a lot of work.
Dallan up at Deseret Book put this video together to get the word out about the print edition.
And now let me show you the process:
I’m excited and honored to be showing with Brian Kershisnik at the St. George Art Museum. I hope you get a chance to see this show. Here’s a little preview:
Also, I thought it would be fun to show you two of the pieces in progress. The first is called Lighting Candles:
The second is called Shared Light:By the way, all of my pieces in the show are available for purchase through Authentique Gallery, which is kitty-corner to the museum. Museum hours are 10-5, Mon-Sat, and 10-9 every third Thursday.
WHY ARE YOU PAINTING THOSE NAKED LADIES? Or, What makes me think I can go to a nude drawing session on Saturday and then go to church on Sunday?
I just love most all of your marvelous work.
But if I might ask, why in blazes do you paint nude women? Are you perhaps trying to get attention from the secular world? Where is your head at?”
Here’s another similar message from a few months back, after I posted a photo of what I felt was an innocuous figure painting:
“Hey, I don’t like this post. Please remove it. I guess I can be a little over the top, but I really don’t like to see nudity in any way, shape, or form. We try so hard to fight porn and stuff and we, as women in the church are always being told to keep our bodies covered. We aren’t even supposed to wear “tight or revealing clothing.” But, apparently, it’s alright for an LDS man to post a painting of a nude woman on his wall. What if that was your wife or daughter’s body? I’ve heard nude art called “soft porn.” As far as I’m concerned, porn is porn.”
So here it goes. I will try to explain my point of view here once and for all. I’m not interested in discussion. In fact, I’m not going to allow comments on this particular blog post. My sense is that most people have made up their minds when it comes to nudity, and “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
Let me tell you quickly about events that have formed my opinion, and then I’ll venture deeper into the opinion itself.
I’ve always loved to create artwork–artwork that depicts people. One of the hardest things to draw is people, and as a result, so much artwork that tries to depict people is poorly done. And for the same reason, one of the principles studies of the serious artist is the study of the human figure.
I drew my first “nude” in the ninth grade. Fascinated by the gesture and anatomy of the ancient Greek sculpture, The Discobolus, I copied it from an art book. Proud of my drawing, with its proportion and accuracy, I showed it to one of my best friends. I was surprised by his response of disgust and embarrassment at the display of nudity. ‘Where does that response come from?’ I asked myself.
Later in high school, my art teacher set up a special figure sculpting workshop and brought in a professional sculptor. We sculpted in clay, looking at a model who was wearing a leotard. I thought my sculpture looked pretty good. The visiting professional critiqued my work: the breasts looked wrong. Rather than being parallel, they should sit at almost a 90 degree angle, he said. And these angled relationships are repeated throughout the body. Isn’t that fascinating? But because I couldn’t see what was going on beneath the leotard, I couldn’t understand what was happening with the human figure, its inner and outer workings. As I tried to make more accurate figurative artwork, this limitation became more frustrating.
When I went to BYU, I took figure drawing classes. I loved those classes. They were challenging. My skills were being refined. I even took anatomy in the Zoology department with all the pre-med majors, so I could more thoroughly understand the human figure. My only complaint about the art department’s figure drawing classes is that the models wore bikinis (and male models wore speedos.) What’s the problem with that? Here’s the problem: the careful concealing of the human figure produces a sexual response. Thus, lingerie. Most sexually active men will tell you that once a woman’s body is fully unclothed and still, the sexual response is significantly decreased. A common practice among doctors is to have their patients undress before the doctor comes in, thus avoiding the sexualized viewing experience of undressing. In other words, I soon found out that the university art classes with their bikinis was much more sexual than the nude figure sessions I would later attend as a professional artist.
My first nude session was led by an LDS artist/instructor, who was visiting from the east coast. He had been through as much schooling as most doctors—but in various art schools. And what do you suppose the focus was in those schools? Learning to draw the human figure, undraped, un-obscured—a fundamental for artists. The session I attended was conducted in a private gallery in Park City. My heart raced as I anticipated (for the first time in my life) seeing a woman step out onto the platform, fully revealed. And then she did it. She stepped onto the platform. She stood there, naked. I started drawing. My heart slowed down. I began the overwhelming task of laying values, lines, and marks on my page—desperately straining my brain to correctly record proportions, anatomy, edges, divisions of light and dark. The experience desexualized. I know there are people who won’t believe this. All I can say to those people is, if you don’t believe it, you’ve never conducted a serious study of drawing the human figure. If you had, you’d know.
Later on, after my career had begun, I attended weekly figure drawing sessions to continue to hone my skills. I made a comment about what I felt was a hint of a sexual nature in some of the poses chosen for the session, and I was chastised. The man who chastised me was and still is an upstanding spiritual man—active in church callings and a hero to many artists including myself. The human body is not inherently sexual, he told me. And he was right. I stood corrected.
Later in my career, I met a lovely lady who would later purchase many of my paintings. She too was an artist. Her house was and remains full of nude works of art. Soon she was called to serve as Stake Relief Society President. She explained to the Stake President when he extended the calling, “This is part of who I am. I’m an artist, and the human figure is very important to me.” She expressed concern that some women under her stewardship might not understand. She didn’t want to be a stumbling block to them. The Stake President expressed his confidence that she should serve anyway—that nothing in her home offended him, and that if anyone was offended by it, it was probably because that person had experienced something in their past that was unpleasant. Was that Stake President correct to make such a blanket assumption? I don’t know. But I do know that my artist friend served faithfully and is one of the most caring people I’ve ever met. From my perspective, her love of the human form in art did not detract from her spirituality or ability to serve. What could have detracted from her spirit? Being forced into a puritanical rejection of those good things that spoke to her soul.
So. Why do I paint from the nude, and why do I occasionally display those paintings? Why do I hang some of them in my house?
1. Because I want to be an excellent artist.
In today’s email, this thought was expressed: “I just love most all of your marvelous work, BUT…”. To me, this is similar to the following comment: “Well I love everything you Mormons do, but I just can’t stomach Joseph Smith.” Joseph Smith is a fundamental for Latter-Day Saints. Figure drawing is a fundamental for artists. I want to be an excellent artist. My artist friends reading this will nod their heads and say, “Yes, of course.” Others may read it and scratch their heads, unable to reconcile this idea with their spiritual convictions.
Should a young Mormon who wants a career as an artist choose a different career path if he or she is unwilling to draw from the nude model? No. I don’t think so. But I will say this. If a young Mormon wants to create classical or realist works worthy of depicting the great doctrines of the gospel and stories of the human experience, he or she will most definitely need to study the human figure in great depth.
2. Because art celebrates the human figure, God’s greatest creation, in a non-sexual way.
I teach my young children to appreciate the human body. If they see nude art, I teach them not to say “Ew, gross!” I teach them to have respect.
I hear this all the time: “But I have teenage boys.”
What better way to teach teenage boys that the human figure is beautiful, not sexual, than to have a piece of art in the home? Or at least take them to an art museum once in a while. The alternative is to make them jump to the remote, shut the magazine ad, run out of the movie theater, at the slightest and earliest appearance of skin. What does that teach them? The body is evil. The body is sexual. Run away from nudity at all cost. I think this is unhealthy.
Where then, can we draw the line between nudity and pornography, or art and pornography? This can be difficult, especially when you or your teenagers have been conditioned to dismiss all nudity as pornography. We often want things spelled out for us so we don’t have to work to make judgments. But I say, let’s use our judgment. That’s part of God’s plan—for us to use our judgment: Is the work of art respectful to the human body? Maybe it’s not pornography. Is the work of art aimed to stimulate inappropriate sexual responses in me? Maybe it’s pornographic, and I can walk away like a mature adult. Let’s not teach our children to have an unhealthy, body-hating, puritanical view of the human figure–or they may be more likely to give in to temptations thrown in front of them when their parents are not around, something that will surely occur.
I have spent most of the day mulling over today’s email. During church I researched scriptures on the subject. Here are the conclusions I’ve made, based on scripture:
1. Adam and Eve were naked and innocent.
2. Satan pointed out that they were naked, and told them they should feel ashamed.
3. Knowledge of good and evil makes us aware of our nakedness.
4. Our body is our temple, created in the image of God.
5. Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for three years.
6. The act of clothing nakedness is a spiritually symbolic act.
7. Nakedness is often equated to poverty.
8. The Apostle Peter was naked on the fishing boat right before he saw the resurrected Jesus on the shore of Tiberias.
9. Ham saw his father Noah’s nakedness, and his son Caanan was cursed as a result. (This scripture is strange to me. I think we’re not getting the whole story.)
10. You must not uncover the nakedness of any relatives. (And I think this is a euphemism, similar to “lie with.”)
11. You must not look on a woman to lust after her.
12. Don’t commit adultery.
I go to church on Sunday. I serve in church. I have a testimony of the Gospel. I have a testimony of the power of good art. I want to make good art. I think the world would be better with better art—and that God wants artists to do their part to make the world better. I believe we were created in the image of God–which image I believe should be respected. I have no problems reconciling my faith with nudity. My wife is an artist. Sometimes she comes with me to draw or paint from the nude figure. I have never had a problem with pornography. I’ve never had a problem with infidelity. I could go (and have gone) months without attending a figure session. I’m not addicted. All this to say, there is a healthy way to look at the human figure, and an unhealthy way. One unhealthy way is to fall into an addiction to pornography. Another unhealthy way is to avoid the human figure like the plague.
So there you have it. This is my take on nudity. If you remain unconvinced, there is little point in the two of us discussing the subject further. But I hope you’ll appreciate my paintings of the Savior, anyway, and look past the “vice” that made those paintings possible.
With love and respect,