Visual Arts

Nathan Florence’s Decade-Long Project on the Art & Belief Movement Comes to the Screen in “Bright Spark”

Ten years ago, Nathan Florence, a Salt Lake City artist known for his figurative and landscape work, announced his newest project, a documentary film that would explore the Art & Belief movement —  a group of Brigham Young University art students in the late 1960s who, dissatisfied with what they saw as the mediocrity of Mormon art, banded together to create an arts community in northern Utah County.  This month, Florence’s project has culminated in Bright Spark: The Reconciliation of Trevor Southey, a feature-length documentary currently playing in select theaters.

Dennis Smith, Gary Ernest Smith, Neil Hadlock and Trevor Southey became acquainted while art students at Brigham Young University, where they thrived on a passionate group dynamic.Though each pursued an individual style, whether in painting or sculpture — and sometimes both — the artists were brought together by the desire to seek excellence in their art while using it to express their shared Mormon faith. They carried that passion with them to Alpine, Utah, then a small, rural community, where they lived frugally (and sometimes communally) while they launched their artistic careers — whether by going door to door in Salt Lake City’s business district looking for patrons, or seeking official commissions from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While this group story provides initial and recurring context for the film, it is Southey who becomes the center of the film’s narrative focus. His story is the most dramatic: a gay man who grew up in Rhodesia, he was the only member of the group who was a convert to the LDS Church; once in Utah, he chose to enter a heterosexual marriage within the faith; when he no longer felt he could ignore his sexuality, he and his wife divorced and Southey was excommunicated from the LDS Church. The film explores these decisions and their consequences, and follows Southey in the last years of his life, from a return to Utah for a retrospective exhibition and a reunion with other members of the Art & Belief movement, to his rapprochement with the LDS community and his eventual physical decline and death.

As Florence explains in a personal narration that serves as a sort of framing device for the film, his Art & Belief project was his way to explore the intersection of his own religious and artistic life. Florence provides apt and concise contextual asides that will be helpful for those less familiar with the LDS community; and he enters the film as a protagonist when he helps Southey finish his last painting while in a nursing home. What the project helped Florence understand about his own religious and artistic life is left unsaid. Other narrative threads are also less developed and, as the film suggests that each of their journeys was unique, some viewers may find themselves wanting to more know about the artistic and religious lives of Neil Hadlock and Dennis and Gary Smith. . One can hope that what was left on the cutting room floor may provide material for future releases, which by no means need be feature-length.

Bright Spark: The Reconciliation of Trevor Southey is a moving film about shared ideals, artistic vision, individual faith and personal reconciliation. It opened at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and continues to play in select theaters in Utah.

For more information, including future streaming options, visit brightsparkfilm.com.

Categories: Visual Arts

2 replies »

  1. I had always understood that professor Dale Fletcher, BYU President Calvin Fletcher’s son, was a significant figure in this movement and I am surprised that he gets no mention. His story fascinates; far more than anyone else’s to this “outsider,” although I can see that it might be an embarrassment to active members of the LDS Church and to those at BYU; perhaps also to living members of the old Art & Belief movement. Still, it seems to me that he surely merits inclusion in both film and article. Was Dale Fletcher left on the cutting-room floor or just left out?

    • I don’t think there was any embarassment. Dale Fletcher’s role as a sort of faculty advisor to the younger artists is discussed in the film. It may be up to you, Ann, to tell his full story.

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