Since a majority of the state’s residents adhere to teachings from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, religion in Utah can often feel homogeneous. Because of this, we often make assumptions concerning the religious and spiritual beliefs of individuals around us. It is this climate that makes the diverse display of spiritual convictions found in Springville Museum of Art’s annual 35th Spiritual & Religious Art of Utah, in conjunction with their curated show Depictions of Divinity, so refreshing. Featuring 180 works by 158 artists, these shows create a space where a multitude of different spiritual and religious beliefs and experiences can be shared.
Many works in the exhibition find and celebrate spirituality in seemingly common objects or experiences, establishing a relationship between the temporal and the spiritual. Namon Bills’ “Visitation” features a beautiful red apple against a background of collaged sheet music and a simple bright yellow rectangle centered on the canvas. Spiritual reflections come from a white sheet that flies down from the top of the canvas, taking an almost angelic form. The ethereal form and apple in unity with one another allow the viewer to muse over their relationship to one another.
Megan Trueblood’s “Array of Eggs” is a simple white canvas with a circle of different colored eggs at the center. Trueblood highlights the unique shape and color of each egg and likens this to the unique features of each individual on Earth while still all being created in God’s image. Trueblood finds spiritual comfort in the simple form of this common object that many would overlook altogether.
In Miriam Tribe’s bright and energetic “The Movement Movement,” four figures with Picasso-like faces are seen over an abstract background. Three of them have their eyes closed, focused on the movement of their bodies and the music that surely directs them. Tribe speaks to the joyful celebration of life that dancing invokes as well as the opportunity it has provided in her life to appreciate the human body and the ability to forget oneself in the movement and music. Tribe relays that for just a moment, while dancing, she feels that she has tapped into something bigger than herself.
Finding spiritual experiences in everyday life is a common theme, but its most common iteration in the exhibit is experiencing the divinity and beauty of the natural world around us. Nature’s prevalence in the show highlights its role as a unifier between different religions and spiritual experiences. Nature’s beauty and vastness often remind us of something bigger than ourselves. Its role in this show is multifaceted and, while a frequent theme, each experience shared is personal. Some of these works, like Willamarie Huelskamp’s “Joy With Dragonflies,” focus solely on the beauty of nature and wildlife itself. Huelskamp’s calm but colorful canvas features an acorn-shaped figure (minus the acorn cap) with closed eyes, outstretched arms and fingers, and feet with spread toes that jut straight out from the bottom of the acorn shape. Dragonflies flutter across the canvas, a few landing on the figure in a sense of calm unity. Huelskamp utilizes warm purple, yellow and red tones across the work. “Joy with Dragonflies” expresses the whole joy that comes from the unity between humans and the natural world. Huelskamp expresses wonder over the beauty and connectedness she has to all living beings.
Similarly, Susan Moss’ work “Gateway to Heaven” focuses on the beauty and grand simplicity of the land around us. This abstract interpretation of southern Utah’s red rocks and blue skies is vibrant. The bright red stands in stark contrast to the blues Moss uses. The work is a celebration of a desert landscape so beautiful that Moss feels it must be connected to a higher power. Nature here is appreciated and seen as a way to connect with a spiritual realm, a gateway to something grander than ourselves.
Nature is also directly connected to the divine through different religions and beliefs. Leo Platero’s “Holy Family” focuses on the Navajo/Diné beliefs that the Creator created the Holy People that were the Light in the East, Water in the South, Air in the West, and Earth through pollen in the North. These Holy People, all elements of earth, then created the rest of earth and humanity. Platero personifies these elements and Holy People in his work, drawing them in four sacred colors: black, white, yellow, and blue. Nature is powerful and as such it often takes on sacred meaning.
Kraig Varner highlights this in the work “Sun Goddess.” This sculpture is not necessarily connected to one religion or set of beliefs but rather represents how different faiths across time and geographic locations have heralded the sun as a god or goddess. The sun gives light and life to all of humanity; it is a symbol of strength, power, fertility, and renewal. Varner’s sun goddess is powerful and beautiful. Her hair crowns her head like rays of the sun and extends down to her side. Her elongated legs and extended feet make her look like she is floating, giving her a powerful and ethereal appearance.
Katie Rees also chose to focus on a personified view of nature and its spiritual/divine power. Her work “Amphitrite” is named after the Greek goddess of the sea. Rees’s sculpture, which is made of plaster, looks like the crashing waves and foam of the ocean. From the bursting powerful waves, one rises above the rest, out of this surging wave the tumultuous water begins to form a leg, taking a powerful step forward, into the ocean.
The divinity and experiences of women in religion were also explored from powerful depictions of divine women such as Eve or the Mayan Goddess Ixacao to explorations of the role of Heavenly Mother and the relationship between women’s equality and religion. Kwani Povi Winder expresses not only the divinity of the cycle of life but also the divinity of girls as they embark into womanhood in her work “Divina.” Against a background of subtle earth tones, a young girl looks out at the viewer; she wears a muted red shawl, hair draped over her shoulder, looking peaceful and confident. The divine girl wears a headdress of silver and gold, with symbols from Winder’s Santa Clara Pueblo Indian heritage.
Emily C. McPhie also explores the divinity of women in her piece, “Seraphim,” where she depicts a woman in profile standing in front of a small, fairy-like, angel holding a lump of burning coal (as a reference to the book of Isaiah in the Bible). In this work, McPhie references the divine and spiritual work that women have done and are still called to do. Her work pays homage to these women even though their stories are often left out of holy texts.
Claire Tollstrup also references a divine female figure in her work “She Holds Us All.” Whether Tollstrup is referencing Heavenly Mother, a divine Mother Earth or another divine female figure is unclear. Tollstrup painted this work while looking down on a small village in France. The work conveys a sense of peace as a pale pink sun sets in the distance and small lights begin to twinkle from the small village nestled into a hill next to a flowing blue river. Just as a mother watches over her sleeping children, Tollstrup takes the view of this divine woman looking over all the children of her earth. Tollstrup asserts that this divine being holds no favorites and watches and cares over all of us equally.
Women’s equality and religion have often had a tumultuous relationship. Rebecca Jessee recognizes this in her work “Death of a Patriarch.” This work depicts Sariah and Lehi from The Book of Mormon. Sariah is holding Lehi, the patriarch of her family, carrying his weight as she mourns his death. Jessee recognizes the pain and difficulty that women often find in common words used in religion like patriarch, patriarchal and patriarchy while also recognizing the men in her life that have served and uplifted her, just as Lehi served his own family. Jessee’s work speaks to the struggle the women in religion may face as they wrestle to find harmony between their religious convictions and their fight for equality.
Naturally, artists also expressed their spiritual or religious convictions through more traditional forms like architecture (such as Rome’s St. Peters, the Salt Lake LDS Temple, and the Heavenly Dawn Temple in China), classic bible stories, ways to seek communion with God, and depictions of Jesus Christ.
Springville Museum of Art’s 35th Spiritual & Religious Art of Utah and Depictions of Divinity open the door for individuals to contemplate and share their spiritual convictions on both a personal and community level. Alongside artists’ interpretations of classic bible stories are personal accounts of each artist’s spiritual convictions. In this sense, even if you visit alone, the show has a unifying effect. Each artist shares something close to their heart. The diverse experiences and stories shared make this exhibition a place to gain new perspectives and understanding about the people that live around us. The nature of this show creates a space to meditate and unify both as an individual and community through these emotive and stunning works of art.
Depictions of Divinity and 35th Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah, Springville Museum of Art, Springville, through Jan. 12, 2022.