When Trevor Southey’s exhibition Reconciliation opened at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) in October 2010, Nathan Florence was in the audience for a panel discussion. As he watched Trevor Southey, Gary E. Smith, Dennis Smith, and Neil Hadlock discuss the intermingling of their artwork and religious faith, Florence felt the conversation was incomplete. “I wanted to know more about what it meant to be a Mormon artist. How do they find a balance between those two things . . . I grew up in the church, became an artist and struggled with that for a long time, trying to figure that out,” he says. “I really loved Trevor’s word for his show, reconciliation. How do you reconcile your faith and your art? For some of them it’s one and the same. Their art is their belief. It’s who they are. And others have struggled a little more.” Leaving the discussion he began to formulate an idea that ultimately became the film Art and Belief.
Florence’s initial thought was to write an article about the four artists forDialogue, an independent quarterly journal about Mormon culture, history and society where Florence serves as the art director. His idea evolved into the concept for a film. “I thought, ‘This would be a really interesting documentary. I would watch this, I want someone to make this,’” he says. He called Sterling VanWagenen, a family friend and co-founder of the Sundance Festival, and pitched the idea. Over the course of their discussions Florence says VanWagenen started using the word “we” a lot. “And I said, so when you say ‘we’ does that mean you want to produce this. And he said, ‘Well, you’re going to direct it right?’ And I said yes,” Florence says.
Through the process of making this film, Florence has been able to investigate his own notions of art and belief. “I think the LDS church has become a place that’s very controlling of its message with their correlation committee and wanting to make sure that only a very specific image is portrayed and that specific answers are given. And my understanding of an artist has a lot to do with asking questions and challenging the status quo, challenging those positions of security in what we think we know,” Florence says.
The film explores the Art and Belief movement, which began in 1966 when Southey, Gary E. Smith, Dennis Smith, and Hadlock created an artists colony in Alpine, Utah with the intention of using their art to glorify God. As they embarked on this endeavor, they engaged with each other in conversations about their work. “Each of them follows these intersecting and then slowly separating ways as they each become successful in their own right,” Florence says. “But along they way they are having this intense, very productive, but often quite confrontational relationship with each other about what kind of art they were making and was it legitimate.” The conversations were not limited to art; personal issues also surfaced.
When Trevor Southey, a convert to the Mormon Church, openly declared he was gay he did so with the full support of his fellow artists. But he was excommunicated by the LDS Church. “It was such a great, nuanced, interesting story of what I think is one of the greatest civil rights issues of our day,” Florence says. He is particularly interested in Dennis Smith’s version of the story and his unconditional support of Southey. “How does that happen? And if we can tell that story through Dennis’s eyes, it gives us a window in to being open to people being who they are without judging them.”
How to balance faith and daily life isn’t just an issue for artists. “There are a lot of people who have questions in the church. In spite of the monolithic presentation there are a lot of individual perspectives that get lost. I’m interested in telling that kind of story about the church,” Florence says. “The church isn’t the bad guy in this story, it’s not the hero either. It’s what faith is to people, inspiring and frustrating and all those things.”
Ultimately, Florence hopes the film serves as a conversation starter. For people who aren’t part of the Mormon Church, “Art and Belief” will offer a unique perspective on an important local arts movement. It will also be an intimate look at the men who built the movement and what they ultimately gained from being involved. “The way we’ve been able to sit down and talk about ideas is what’s going to make the interviews interesting. They’ve been amazingly genuine and open and generous with their experiences. From things that have made them very uncomfortable and really hard, painful experiences in their lives to the wonder that’s out there,” Florence says. “At the end of the day, I want them to feel like their story has been told honestly.”
Art and Belief is tentatively scheduled for release in September 2013. To learn more about the film visit artandbelieffilm.com.