Mormonism is a rapidly expanding world faith. This expansion is most rapid in areas that are often quite different from mainline American culture.1 How can this increasing cultural variety reinforce and sometimes expand our understanding of the tree of life? This paper is an attempt to deal with this question by looking at pieces of contemporary Mormon art from a wide variety of cultural regions.
Narrowing the list of art down to a manageable size was difficult. As curator of acquisitions at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, Utah, I began by focusing on the art that had been collected at that museum or that had been exhibited there over the last twenty-plus years. After making a list of Latter-day Saint artwork featuring the tree of life, I sorted each item geographically and culturally. Included were the following countries and cultures: Norway, Sweden, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, Ukraine, Armenia, Russia, Lebanon, India, Nepal, China, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Panama, Honduras, Sierra Leone, Kenya, the Navajos, the Santa Clara Pueblos, and many works of art from the United States.2
Thematically, this art springs from the shared Latter-day Saint faith of the artists. Interpretively, it often reflects the broader cultural framework from which the artists come. Aesthetically, this art is a mixture. Some seems to be fairly closely aligned with international artistic styles that are passed on primarily by university art departments. Other pieces were created by artists who are either self-taught or come from within the folk art traditions of their native lands. The museum's inclusion of Latter-day Saint folk art on the tree of life accomplishes three purposes: it increases the range of intellectual and spiritual interpretations of scriptural themes, it demonstrates the great aesthetic variety among Latter-day Saint artists worldwide, and it provides a broad-based sampling of Latter-day Saint art and thought. Historically, Mormonism tends to draw its converts from the lower and lower-middle classes. Because much of the art from this socioeconomic category is folk art, I have included several such works to better reflect the contemporary demographics of Mormonism.3
The theological foundation of the artistic and interpretive variety of this approach is based on this injunction found in the Book of Mormon: "I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning" (1 Nephi 19:23). This is the same writer who recorded the story of the tree of life (1 Nephi 8:11–13).
The artwork to be reviewed here is from Sweden, Germany, the Navajos, South America, Mexico, Nepal, and Japan.
A work of wooden sculpture by the Swedish artist and Mormon bishop Kurt William Sjokvist (see fig. 64) uses a traditional Swedish medium and style.4 Sweden is one of the most heavily forested nations of Europe, and wood has been an important medium for Swedish sculptors going back to the age of the Vikings. Given its far northern location, Sweden has long, dark winters. In an attempt to alleviate the effects of this long winter gloom, Swedes tend to favor light-colored paint for the inside walls and furniture of their homes.
Because the Swedes are on the northern margins of European culture, borrowed high European styles have been modified and simplified. This is most apparent in Swedish decorative arts, particularly those based on eighteenth-century French styles. Sjokvist's work incorporates all of these elements: the medium of wood colored with soft, light colors and the simplified eighteenth-century French rococo design of the base.
While the style of this work is very Swedish, the thematic content is focused on Lehi's vision of the tree of life from the Book of Mormon. The core of Sjokvist's composition is a large, stylized, freestanding world globe. The artist's depiction of Lehi's vision hugs the shape of this globe. The appended sculpture section of the large and spacious building follows that curve, as does the tree of life. By compositionally linking the shape of the building, the tree, and the positioning of the figures to the curved surface of the globe, the artist reminds us of the universality of this story for all the people of the earth.
While Sjokvist's work stylistically looks back to the tradition of Swedish folk art, Johan Benthin's The Iron Rod (see fig. 65) uses the artistic vehicle of modern European academic abstraction and minimalism. Although he lived near Frankfurt, Germany, when he did this work, Benthin was born in Denmark, where he became the first president of the Copenhagen Stake. In Frankfurt he served as the president of the Frankfurt Stake. The artist has lived in many places around the world, including North and South America, England, Spain, and Germany (he currently resides in the southern Indian city of Mysore). The Iron Rod mixes the early twentieth-century German Bauhaus design movement with European abstractionist painting. This style emphasizes extreme simplicity. Benthin's painting masterfully reaches out to the viewer while focusing on a central element of the story. This is accomplished with the minimum of visual forms. It is the simplicity of the painting that makes it so forceful and engaging for the viewer.
So how did he do it? Benthin shifts the focus from Lehi and his family to all mankind. He begins by leaving out many visual elements that are part of the story. There is no fruit. In fact, there is not even a tree of life. There is no Lehi. There are no crowds of people. There is no river. There is no "great and spacious building" (1 Nephi 8:26).
The artist very minimally depicts just two elements of the story: the iron rod and the angel who guides us along the journey. The angel is reduced to a faintly glowing figure of light in the background. Benthin's visual depiction of the angel is more of a reference and suggestion than a description. This has two effects on the viewer. First, discerning that the faintly depicted image is in fact an angel is a discovery process for the viewer, somewhat like the reality of how we make spiritual discoveries in the midst of a mundane world. Second, the iron rod is as bold as the angel is subtle. Benthin uses a broad, bold felt-tip marker and straightedge to create his iron rod. Physically, the smooth, hard surface of the iron rod is placed on the surface of the painting's soft impasto. This makes the iron rod by far the most forceful part of the composition.
What is the artist trying to accomplish? The answer is inherent in what he has not depicted; there are no pilgrims. The viewers of this painting are the missing pilgrims. All who view this work of art are invited to become part of the painting. By placing the iron rod so prominently on the surface of the composition, Benthin demands a choice: "Are you going to grasp the iron rod or not?" 5
Involving the viewer in the creation of the art is a consistent aspect of Benthin's work. He has made the following statements about why and how he creates: "My desire [is] to invite viewers to become co-creators. . . . I want to give others the chance to step back, to reflect on their relationship with the world and with themselves. . . . I can show him [the viewer] the path, make it clear and inviting or hidden and mysterious, but the decision to walk the path is ultimately his. . . . By experiencing art, however, he is forced to . . . establish ever more firmly the concept of what he is." 6
Sjokvist and Benthin present their interpretation of the tree of life story as thematically universal but aesthetically culturally specific. Robert Yellowhair, a Navajo artist from Snowflake, Arizona, created a piece that reverses this approach. In his Lehi's Vision of the Tree of Life (see fig. 66, also pl. 9), he works in a widespread illustrative style, but his images are geographically and culturally specific.
Yellowhair creates a setting from the American Southwest that looks like the Navajo homeland of Arizona and New Mexico. His composition is filled with people, all of whom are Native Americans. Some are even specific historical or cultural figures. Knowledge of the cultures and flora of the Native American West, as well as the artist's personal history, is critical in understanding this work of art.7
Like Lehi's original vision, Yellowhair's interpretation contains specific family elements; the artist puts this family story into the broad context of Navajo history and culture in the Southwest. Over five hundred years ago, the Navajos migrated into this region from northwestern Canada. The Navajos forced their way into an area that was already occupied by the Pueblos and Paiutes. The more aggressive invading Navajos dislocated the more passive existing tribes of the area.8
But despite the resulting intertribal conflict, the Navajos soon began borrowing cultural elements from their more advanced and sedentary neighbors. They adopted many religious elements from the Hopi. Their borrowing of weaving from the Pueblos added to intertribal contention because the Navajos got both sheep and weavers by raiding the Pueblos.9
Embedded in Navajo clan names are records of some of these raids. At birth a Navajo child is assigned to the clan of the mother. If the mother was not born a Navajo (sometimes the result of her being captured on a raid of a neighboring tribe), the child is assigned to a clan that bears the name of the mother's birth tribe. The artist, Robert Yellowhair, for example, is a member of the Zuni clan of the Navajos, indicating that one of his distant grandmothers was a woman from the Zuni tribe who had been captured and made a wife by one of his distant Navajo grandfathers.
This pattern of raiding continued largely unchecked until the mid-nineteenth century, when the U.S. Army, under Col. Kit Carson, led a scorched-earth military action against the eastern Navajos, permanently ending Navajo raids into the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico.10 But the western Navajos continued to raid the Hopis and Mormon settlements to the west.11 Today intertribal conflict is largely confined to the courts as the Navajos battle some of their neighbors over reservation boundaries. Occasionally this simmering hostility breaks out in fights and brawls.12
The artist was born into the middle of this intertribal conflict. But because of his father, a holy man and peacemaker among the Navajos, the artist's personal life took a different turn. Yellowhair's father spoke the languages of several of the surrounding tribes and held positions of religious responsibility in some of those tribes, particularly the Hopis. This is even more noteworthy when one considers that the epicenter of tribal conflict in the Southwest is between the Navajos and Hopis over reservation boundaries.
Yellowhair's family quest to foster peaceful respect among the various tribes of the Southwest permeates this painting. The central Lehi figure is depicted as a Hopi priest dressed in his most sacred religious robes. This "Hopi Lehi" offers the glowing fruit to his family, but his "family" turns out to be a collection of historical or cultural figures from the surrounding tribes. Each of these historical and mythological figures represents specific roles and values that match elements from Lehi's version of the story.13
Facing Lehi are three figures. On the right is Sam, the peacemaker of the family who is depicted as the Shoshone chief Washakie, shown holding a peace pipe and wrapped in a blanket. Washakie was one of the great intratribal and intracultural peacemakers of the nineteenth-century American West. The symbolism of the peace pipe is obvious. The blanket symbolizes the benefits that come from peaceful exchange between Indians and whites. Lehi's wife, Sariah, is depicted as "Crow Mother" of the Zunis. Most tribes in the Southwest claim Mother Earth as their mother, but the Zuni claim Crow Mother. Crow Mother is wearing the religious robes of a Zuni bride. Her role in feeding and serving her family is visually expressed through the basket she carries. To her left is a figure representing Nephi. He is depicted as Quanah Parker, the visionary Comanche chief. He wears a buffalo robe because buffalo are sacred to tribes from the Great Plains and Nephi was a holy man.
Behind these three figures are two more figures, representing Laman and Lemuel. Their background position reflects lack of commitment in living the gospel. They and their warlike descendants are meant to represent the Apache and Sioux people because they were great warriors.
Lehi stands before a tree of life that is depicted as a glorified piñon pine. The artist picked this tree because it is literally a "tree of life" for the people, animals, and birds of the Southwest, providing firewood for heat, construction material for shelter, and pine nuts for food. Next to the tree is a stone box with the gold plates in it. On the plates is written "Diyin Baahani," which means "the story of God" in Navajo.
The sacredness of the land is a recurring theme among most Native American cultures, as well as a recurring theme in the Book of Mormon. Yellowhair depicts northern Arizona's San Francisco Peaks in the upper left of this painting. These mountains are not only traditional tribal territorial markers for the Navajos, they are also sacred to the Navajos and Hopis—places where the "holy people" of both cultures dwell and where sacred things are believed to happen. In the painting these mountains recall the oft-quoted scriptural phrase for the temple: "mountain of the Lord's house" (Isaiah 2:2; Ezekiel 20:40; Doctrine and Covenants 133:13).
To the right of the mountains, the artist has created a composite of the "great and spacious building," representing the pride of the world. This is depicted as a pan-Indian site: it is made up of a Pueblo village, Plains tepees, and even Navajo hogans. These dwellings are separated from the tree of life by a river representing the filthy waters of sin as described by Nephi in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 15:27). Interestingly, this scene also parallels a terrible division among the Navajo people in their own mythic history, which also includes a river.14
This Navajo Latter-day Saint artist has tried to localize Lehi's vision tribally, geographically, and culturally. He has also connected it to his own family history and values. Through his choice of figures and imagery, he has tried to use this story as a bridge of peace to surrounding Indian tribes.
Victor de la Torre grew up and received his early training in furniture making in the rural highlands of Ecuador. Later he studied wood carving near the colonial and capital city of Quito. Because of its availability and low cost, wood is the preferred sculptural medium for many of the traditional Andean peoples. After his training, de la Torre and his family moved to the sprawling, heavily populated modern city of Caracas, capital of Venezuela.15
De la Torre's carved bas-relief titled Lehi's Vision of the Tree of Life (see fig. 67), created in the shape of a round tabletop, reflects his early training. The imagery is a commentary on the areas where the artist has lived. The composition's border draws on traditional Andean Indian styles that predate the Spanish conquest. The river resembles the deep arroyos that, following torrential downpours falling on the steep hillsides of the Ecuadorian highlands, fill with water and carry large amounts of soil. Thus the arroyo-like river of de la Torre's bas-relief aptly recalls the filthy river in Lehi's vision.
But it is the "large and spacious building" (1 Nephi 11:35) that is perhaps the most poignant part of this composition. The building is depicted as a large modern luxury apartment building in Caracas. De la Torre's move to Caracas reflects a demographic reality in much of Latin America: the massive shift in population from rural areas to urban centers. Employment has driven much of this migration, which has been socially disruptive, with family ties and traditions strained and frequently broken. In de la Torre's case, he left his rural home as well as his country in an effort to make a better living.16 In urban areas, where wealth is concentrated, the wealthy often live in high-rise apartment buildings that set them off from the rest of the population. The rich literally look down on the poor, who subsist in low, humble houses, sometimes assembled from discarded materials. De la Torre's rendering of this idea is a demographic statement of spiritual openness—that no one, including the poor and downtrodden, is excluded from seeking the full blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, converts to the Church of Jesus Christ mostly come from the lower and lower-middle classes, rather than from the wealthy. Unlike Yellowhair, de la Torre sees the spiritual and social "landmines" from competing tribes, but rather with respect to the forces of urbanism, modernism, and economic disparity.
Another work of art from Latino culture is Joseph Smith and the Tree of Life, by Mexican artist Juan Escobedo (see fig. 68). The artist started life in the Mexican colonial city of San Luis Potosí. When Juan was fourteen, his father found work as a migrant farmworker in Texas, where his family met the missionaries and eventually joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Juan studied art at Brigham Young University, where he continued to cultivate an artistic style that remained rooted in the folk art of his native Mexico.17
Two elements that frequently appear in Mexican folk art are bright colors and compositions that include festive parades. In a physical environment colored primarily by earth tones, artwork done in bright, vibrant colors is associated with festivities and seen as buoyant, self-confident, and happy. For people living amid grinding poverty with its long hours of hard physical labor day after day, colorful festivals provide a brief respite.18
While the overall aesthetic of Joseph Smith and the Tree of Life is that of a festive parade, the bright colors are also a consistent metaphor for righteous joy. In fact, the specific features of the painting follow the path of a new convert to the Church of Jesus Christ. The story begins on the left side of the composition, where a woman has plunged into the bright blue rolling waters of a pure stream issuing from the tree of life. On her back is a large, heavily laden, gray rebozo. Such shawls are used by Mexican peasant women to carry burdens. The heavy load represents sin, and the bright waters represent baptism. The woman next appears dressed in joyfully bright clothing. Her rebozo is now empty, and she is grasping the iron (golden) rod leading to the tree of life. She next appears dressed in even brighter clothing. Her previously gray rebozo has become a bright, festive shawl. She gestures to the viewer to join her on her new gospel journey.19
But then she begins to depart from the gospel path as she goes into spiritual regression. The bright, colorful costume is almost hidden by the heavily loaded rebozo. The weight of sin forces her down onto her hands and knees. Having let go of the iron rod, she moves away from the route of joy, spiritual safety, and progress. But, fortunately, golden tendrils emanating from the tree of life block her digression. Within these tendrils we discover names of the prophets of this dispensation. The most prominent figure is blue-clad Joseph Smith, who points her back to the path. Below him is the image of Brigham Young. It is the teachings and exhortations of modern prophets that help provide guidance to overcome sin and discouragement and get us back on the path to the tree of life.
Nearing the large white fruit of the tree is the young Joseph Smith, who was the first in this dispensation to proceed down the path toward the tree of life. He becomes the guide and model for the new convert.
Above the arm of Joseph in blue is the cosmos, worlds without end, symbolizing the eternal extension of the Lord's plan of exaltation. Swirling around the base of the tree, in a bright rainbow of color, are those who have successfully arrived.20
Escobedo has focused his painting on the multifaceted spiritual journey of a new convert. The visual blending of the tree of life with the words of modern prophets is a rather unique addition. The artist gives encouragement to those on the path by celebrating the vast multitudes of spiritual pilgrims who have successfully arrived at the tree and are going around it in an eternal circle.21 Through the rich, symbolic traditions and forms of Mexican folk art the artist is able to transcend time and space. Multiple stories are told, each with its spiritual commentary. Using the form of a Mexican fiesta procession visually and conceptually pulls the composition together. That all this can happen on the same canvas attests to the richness, flexibility, and versatility of traditional folk art to joyfully communicate complicated spiritual, narrative, and allegorical concepts.
The Peruvian artist Jerónimo Lozano uses the developing folk art form of retablo to express his interpretation of the tree of life (see fig. 69). Lozano, a Quechua Indian from the high mountain valleys near Ayucucho, Peru, grew up in the epicenter of this particular Peruvian folk art tradition. He was forced to flee from his ancestral village after the Shining Path guerilla movement killed his family and virtually everyone in his village. He currently lives in Salt Lake City, where he came for medical help and ended up becoming a Latter-day Saint.22
Retablo is a folk art form that goes back hundreds of years. Spanish priests first brought retablos to Peru in the sixteenth century. The priests used these small wooden boxes filled with little sculptural groupings to teach Christianity to the native populations. Thematic content usually revolved around such subjects as the nativity, the crucifixion, the last supper, and the lives of the saints. Priests also sometimes used small retablos as portable altars. Occasionally, traveling merchants carried them on their journeys for spiritual protection.23
Today, five hundred years after this art form arrived in the Americas, Peruvian folk artists have adapted it for their own uses. As retablos have moved into the world of popular folk art, gold leafing has been replaced by bright, colorful paint; the figurative forms have become more simplified; and the thematic content has become more linked with the lives of the common people. Today's retablos are made of common, readily available materials: scraps of thin, cheap plywood; bright paints; and a doughy mixture made of potato starch or gypsum powder. Most of the modeling is done with fingers and a sharpened stick. The overall form of contemporary retablos is that of a brightly painted wooden box reminiscent of a multistoried, many-roomed house, often including two-wing doors and a gable pediment.
The retablo is a dynamic and constantly evolving folk art among the native population of Peru, particularly in the area around Ayucucho. Today the narrative content often recounts local historical events, depicts fiestas and daily life, and tells religious stories.
Lozano depicts his interpretation of Lehi's vision of the tree of life by populating different shelves of his retablo with different aspects of the vision. The upper shelves, separated into small compartments, tell the story of Lehi and his family. Lozano's transition from the family story of Lehi on the upper shelves to the story of humanity on the lower ones is an Eden-like sequence that is one of the artist's most interesting commentaries on the story. Animals and children are joyfully proceeding toward the tree of life through a celebratory rainbow arch.24 Thus it is not the natural world of animals and children that is in conflict with the ways of God. This peaceful parade contrasts with Laman and Lemuel's rejection of the tree directly above and the chaos and conflict of the densely packed humanity below.
While the figures of humanity are dressed in vaguely antique dress, it is interesting that the "great and spacious building" resembles the terraced balconies of a contemporary Latin American urban high-rise luxury apartment building. This continues the theme of fear and distrust of urban modernism that we also saw in de la Torre's Latin American sculpture.
A great challenge of visually telling this complex story in a single work of art is that the narrative is actually composed of many smaller stories strung together. Traditional Western easel paintings are like a single snapshot, capable of depicting only a single moment in a particular place. That art form makes telling a sequential story, which sometimes takes place over widely differing times and places, rather difficult. An alternative approach is contemporary academic abstract art. While not limited by a single-snapshot form of presentation, abstract art has its own interpretive challenges. For instance, it usually loses narrative content and degenerates into opaque, idiosyncratic symbolism that fails to connect with most viewers.
Non-Western folk art is usually not under such compositional constraints. As in the scriptures, the values and worldviews of traditional cultures are usually embedded in stories. Over many generations, art forms have developed to tell those stories. It is interesting that Lozano's composition even reads like sentences in a book, moving from left to right and from top to bottom. With stories as complex as Lehi's vision, some seemingly naïve folk art traditions, with their highly flexible compositional systems, are actually quite sophisticated and functional aesthetic systems for telling complex narrative messages.
By far the most narratively complex work of Mormon art depicting the story of the tree of life is Nephi's Vision of the Tree of Life, a Tibetan thangka-style painting25 by Nepalese artist Gilbert Singh (see fig. 70, also pl. 10). A retired professional educator among Great Britain's famed Nepalese Gurkha regiments, Singh has developed his artistic talents by mastering one of the world's most complex art traditions. Nepal, located in the midst of the Himalayas, is wedged between India, Tibet, and China. The artistic traditions of these three incredibly rich cultures came together in Nepal. Singh's thangka painting is one of the results.26
The basic purpose of many thangka paintings is to depict, through highly stylized forms, the religious universe. Not surprisingly, Singh's painting does not focus on just one or two aspects of Lehi's vision of the tree of life; rather, it takes on the task of visualizing the much more complex story of Nephi's related vision. Nephi's vision includes not only the tree of life but also a prophetic overview of what was to become Nephite history, much of the Savior's mortal life, and the second coming of Christ. However, communicating these themes with an art form typically used to describe the entire spiritual universe was, for Singh, a doable artistic task.
Singh uses local visual symbols to tell the stories. The whole composition is beautifully tied together with flowing water, landscape elements, and a consistent color palette. It also reflects the Oriental tradition of creation coming from a mound in the midst of water.
In traditional Buddhist paintings the Buddha, or perhaps a bodhisattva,27 is usually the central figure. The surrounding figures or stories help define the teachings or life of the central figure. Singh has placed the second coming of Christ in the center of the composition. The surrounding vignettes follow the account in 1 Nephi 11 in describing the spiritual history of the world that will lead up to the second coming.
The final work of art treated here is also from Asia. Unlike Singh's narratively complex thangka painting of Nephi's vision of the tree of life, Japanese artist Kazuto Uoto's Tree of Life (see fig. 71) has an almost Zen-like sparseness. The simplicity of this painting is deceptive; embedded in it are allusions to Japanese culture that the artist uses to comment on the story of the tree of life.
Among the most structured and yet widespread rituals in Japan is the cha-no-yu, or tea ceremony. In a rigidly stratified society, this ceremony emphasizes humility and classlessness.28 Uoto uses elements of this ceremony as visual interpretive vehicles for his analysis of the tree of life vision. Formulated by Sen no Rikyū, the greatest of the early Japanese tea masters, the wabi cha, or "poverty tea," is the most austere, intimate, and influential form of this ceremony, stressing spiritual fulfillment through renunciation of material things. Within this ritual and its setting are embodied the Japanese expressions of humility, simplicity, aesthetics, and contemplation. Every aspect of the ceremony is carefully regulated.29
If you were participating in the wabi cha, the ritual would begin as you carefully walk through a small garden down a roji, or "dewy path." Before entering a small, rustic hut, you would stop to ritually wash your hands and mouth in a stone basin that was fed water through a bamboo pipe. You would remove your shoes as a sign of respect before entering the chashitsu, or tea hut, through a low doorway that would require you to crouch low as an expression of humility. The ritual journey, purification, and humility have parallels in Lehi's vision of commitment, humility, cooperation, and faith.30
The single room in the chashitsu is very simple, austere, and practically empty. In your presence the host, using very simple tools made of bamboo, would ritually prepare the tea as a symbol of humility.31 Then he would ladle your tea into a chawan, or small tea bowl. In the wabi cha, a style of chawan called raku is used. It is a small, shallow, kiln-fired bowl with a rough-textured, earthen-colored glaze. As a guest, you would probably drink out of the same bowl as the other guests, though it would be ritually washed between uses. This shared use of the same chawan would emphasize the camaraderie among participants.
On one side of the room is a small, raised alcove called a tokonoma. Here is placed a very simple floral arrangement, frequently a small branch from a flowering tree or a branch with fruit on it. As a guest, you would be encouraged to quietly contemplate this floral arrangement and the benefits of instilling a similar simple peacefulness in your own life.
Uoto's painting incorporates many elements from the wabi cha. The background of the painting has a grid structure like the simple shoji panels that form the walls of the chashitsu.32 The rough texture of the painting's surface also has meaning. The artist went to great lengths to apply a thin layer of rough plaster over the board to create a texture that simulates the most primitive style of raku chawan. He further enhanced this symbolism by using the same earthen colors as the consciously and symbolically simple and humble raku chawan.33
The simplicity of the painting—no human figures, iron rod, large building, stream, or mists, just a tree with glowing fruit—recalls the floral arrangement in the tokonoma.34 The narrative part of Lehi's vision is expressed by the allusions to the wabi cha ceremony. While this painting visually presents a fairly complex message, the viewer must have some knowledge of Japanese culture in order to appreciate much of the spiritual commentary of the artist. The tree of life, with its glowing fruit, is an object for contemplation, reverence, inspiration, humility, and community. The artist is trying to inspire us with heavenly reward while alluding to the necessary values that must become part of our souls if we are to obtain that reward.
Not only is more than
half of the church's population now living outside the United States and
Canada, but over 80 percent of church growth is also taking place outside that
area.35 Most of that growth is happening in countries
that are most culturally different from the old western American core of Mormonism.36 The contemporary demographics of Mormonism
tend to outrun our cultural perceptions of what it means to be a worldwide
church. Perhaps the shared religious focus of Latter-day Saint art can help
bridge this gulf while also giving a rich interpretive and aesthetic reward for
putting forth the effort.
Richard G. Oman earned a BA in history from Brigham Young University and did graduate work in art history at the University of Washington, where he specialized in non-Western art. He recently retired as senior curator of the Museum of Church History and Art, Salt Lake City, where he created a major repository of documentation on Latter-day Saint artists from early times to the present and acquired LDS artworks depicting the tree of life. The latter effort resulted in a large exhibition on the tree of life that he curated for the museum. In addition, he worked as art and artifact acquisitions curator for the Church History Department; and as a charter member of the Temple Art Committee (now the Church Art Committee), he advised on historical, iconographical, and artistic matters relating to temple construction, restoration, and maintenance. He has served as art advisor for temples in the United States, Canada, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. He continues to serve on the Church Art Committee and to advise the acquisition committee of the Church History Department. He is a member of the editorial board of BYU Studies.
1. In 1950, 90 percent of Latter-day Saints lived in the United States. Deseret News 1974 Church Almanac (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1974), 197. By 2010, only 45 percent of Latter-day Saints lived in the United States and Canada combined. Deseret News 2011 Church Almanac (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 2009), 191.
2. All of these works of art are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Church History and Art, a division of the Family and Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The museum is located directly west of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah.
3. Most notably, the fact that more than half of the church membership lives outside the United States.
4. For an excellent discussion of the Swedish style of art and interior design, see Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style, ed. Michael Snodin and Elisabet Stavenow-Hidemark (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997).
5. Johan Benthin, LDS Artists Files, Museum of Church History and Art, Salt Lake City (hereafter "LDS Artists Files").
6. Johan H. Benthin, "Thoughts on Arts and Inspiration," in Arts and Inspiration: Mormon Perspectives, ed. Steven P. Sondrup (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1980), 77.
7. The interpretation of Yellowhair's painting is based upon my oral interviews with the artist. This information is in Robert Yellowhair, LDS Artists Files.
8. See Ruth M. Underhill, The Navajos, rev. ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967); and Harry C. James, Pages from Hopi History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1983).
9. Some Pueblos, bringing their sheep with them, also came to the Navajos to escape the wrath of the Spanish after the great Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. The Coyote Pass, or Jemez clan, for example, is specifically identified as being associated with these Pueblo refugees. Underhill, The Navajos, 41–48.
10. Underhill, The Navajos, 112–26.
11. Underhill, The Navajos, 119.
12. I have heard numerous accounts of physical conflict between Navajo aggressors and Hopi victims (mostly from Hopi sources) during fieldwork conducted in the Southwest between 1980 and 1990.
13. The artist explained the figures and their meaning to me. This information is on file in Yellowhair, LDS Artists Files.
14. Paul G. Zolbrod, Diné bahane': The Navajo Creation Story (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 55–70.
15. Victor de la Torre, LDS Artists Files. As of 2008, the population of Caracas exceeded 4.3 million (the population of Greater Caracas is approximately 6.2 million). "Caracas," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/caracas (accessed 6 March 2009).
16. According to the World Bank, per capita yearly income in Venezuela is $7,320.00, compared to only $3,080.00 in Ecuador. The World Bank Group, "Doing Business: Measuring business regulations," http://www.doingbusiness.org/exploreeconomies/economycharacteristics.aspx (accessed 6 March 2009).
17. Juan Escobedo, LDS Artists Files.
18. For an excellent overview of the relationship of folk art to parades and festivals, see Henry Glassie, The Spirit of Folk Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989).
19. Escobedo, LDS Artists Files.
20. Escobedo, LDS Artists Files.
21. "The course of the Lord is one eternal round" (1 Nephi 10:19).
22. I learned this information in conversation with the artist.
23. Roger Hamilton, "Tradition and change in Peru's folk art," IDB AMERICA (online magazine of the Inter-American Development Bank), February 2004, http://www.iadb.org/idbamerica/index.cfm?thisid=2637 (accessed 9 March 2009).
24. The rainbow symbolizes God's promise to mankind and the earth: "I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth" (Genesis 9:13).
25. In Nepal these types of paintings are called paubha paintings, while in Tibet they are called thangka paintings. However, even though this painting was created in Kathmandu, Nepal, by a Nepalese painter, the style is more Tibetan than Nepalese. See Pratapaditya Pal, Art of the Himalayas: Treasures from Nepal and Tibet (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1992), 19, 101.
26. Michael Hutt, Nepal: A Guide to the Art and Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley (Gartmore, Stirling, Scotland: Kiscadale Publications, 1994), 64.
27. Bodhisattvas are actual men who are believed to have gained spiritual perfection on this earth but who have chosen to serve as spiritual guides and saviors of mankind rather than going directly on to nirvana. See Mircea Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings from Around the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 48–49.
28. Liza Crihfield Dalby, All-Japan: The Catalogue of Everything Japanese, ed. Oliver Statler (New York: Quill, 1984), 93.
29. Dalby, All-Japan, 93.
30. Dalby, All-Japan, 96.
31. Dalby, All-Japan, 95.
32. Dalby, All-Japan, 96.
33. Dalby, All-Japan, 94.
34. Dalby, All-Japan, 95.
35. David G. Stewart, Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work (Henderson, NV: Cumorah Foundation, 2007), 16.
36. Compare the membership growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1993 through 2007 in California (used here as an indicator of the church's overall growth in the United States) with that of selected regions throughout the world: California, 1993 = 774,000 and 2007 = 809,171 (4.54% increase); Europe, 1993 = 355,000 and 2007 = 469,839 (32.34% increase); Africa, 1993 = 77,000 and 2007 = 264,602 (243.63% increase); Brazil, 1993 = 474,000 and 2007 = 1,018,901 (114.95% increase); Asia (excluding Korea, Japan, and the Philippines), 1993 = 54,000 and 2007 = 133,593 (147.39% increase). The statistics are from the 1995–96 and 2009 editions of the Church Almanac.