Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Provo Exhibit Explores the Bonds and Bounds of Religious OCD

Installation view of Writ and Vision’s “I Am Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire,” photo by Jesslyn Low

Two bowls are set on a small wooden end table. The bowl on the right reads, “Take one of these cards if you do NOT have OCD.” The bowl on the left reads, “Take one of these cards if you DO have OCD.” Each is filled with cards the size of your average business card. The cards for those that do not have OCD says:

“Holy Sh*t
I’m doomed.
God Hates me.
I’m going to die.
I’m going to hurt someone.”

For those with OCD, the card says:

God doesn’t hate you.
“*you are holy*
You are not your OCD.
You are not going to hell.
You are worthy.”

Viewers were invited to carry their respective cards with them throughout the show and asked to take the card out of their pocket in front of each art piece at Writ and Vision’s I Am Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire and imagine that the words printed there were interposed between the viewer and the art. This work is Elizabeth Pinboroughs “Beloved + Internal” which was exhibited in Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire at Writ and Vision in December. The show was striking and informative, as artists and poets came together to share some of the ways that their lives have been affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In the introduction to the show, they say “This is not a quirky preference for alignment or symmetry. This is a debilitating disease of fear, doubt, and spiraling terror.” The participants of this show specifically speak to scrupulosity or religious OCD. The compulsions of this OCD “can be rigid adherence to commandments, excessive praying, repeated confession to spiritual leaders, repeating scripture or hymns to “cleanse” impure thoughts, and more.” Those with scrupulosity never feel clean, worthy, or righteous “enough.” I am Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire includes 25 artists and poets who depict their different experiences with religious OCD as it pertains specifically to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormon religion.

Many of the artists shared the different ways their religious OCD manifests itself. Charlotte Condie’s “Call the Bishop” does just this. The work itself is a red rotary phone made out of pages from Mormon Doctrine, a popular and stringent explication of teachings written by the late LDS Church leader Bruce R. McConkie. Tally marks can be seen in groups of five dispersed across the surface of the phone. The work represents Condie’s outward compulsion to constantly confess to the bishop, frequently going through the checkbox repentance process for the same “sin” to make sure forgiveness was truly secured.

Emily Vogel, “Be Ye Therefore Perfect,” watercolor and ink.

Emily Vogel’s “Be Ye Therefore Perfect” also shares a struggle with worthiness and the constant infliction of a standard of perfectionism. For Vogel, these thoughts manifested through an eating disorder. In “Be Ye Therefore Perfect” the artist uses herself as subject to convey the desperate and destructive effect that OCD can have on a person. A measuring tape wraps itself around her neck weaving its way up across her mouth and eyes. She claws at the tape trying to loosen its grip around her neck to drink in the air she so desperately needs. Behind her body, in bold lettering, are the words “Be ye therefore perfect,” portraying the way religious OCD has caused Vogel to “interpret eternal commandments by the standards of worldly perfection.”

Hayley labrum Morrison explores these themes as well in her work “I Know Not, Save the Lord Commanded Me.” This work features a single hand slightly tensed and laid across a pure white fabric. Each finger has two “CTR” rings wrapped tightly around the skin. CTR, standing for “Choose the Right,” is a common acronym used in the LDS Church, introduced during their program for children: the letters are placed on a small green shield with a silver band and commonly given to children to wear as a reminder to choose right. Morrison concludes that for those with obsessive tendencies, this emphasis on choosing the right can often result in these individuals getting caught up in figuring out exactly what “right” is and then holding themselves and others to the absolute highest degree of their own interpretation. Those with scrupulosity end up becoming immensely concerned with being the most righteous.

The pressure and need for exactness among those who have religious OCD bring many to a breaking point. Camilla Stark’s “Damien Hirst and the Hebrew Blood Covenant” speaks to snapping. The work itself is placed in a thick gold frame that creates an oval around the subject of the work: a bird. The bird faces the viewer wings outstretched, its body split into two pieces. Down the divide are the words “God Told Me Not To.” The bird wears a gold halo that matches the frame. Stark accompanies the image with scripture and words saying “What happens if you put every ounce of your heart and soul into perfect obedience and worship and it’s not enough, it’s not enough, it’s not enough, it’s never enough — and then you snap?”

Camilla Stark, “Damien Hirst and the Hebrew Blood Covenant,” India ink and gold leaf

Sarah Robinson speaks to growing pressure in “Pressure Machine,” a work that contrasts two images of the same subject matter. On the left, the items are perfectly placed: books on women and marriage, an iron, a pin cushion, a casserole dish, religious images, and a baby onesie sit, organized and facing the viewer. The image on the right contains all the same items but now they are crumpled, the casserole has been partially eaten, books lay flat, the items are now generally messy. Robinson shares how her internal pressure cooker has exploded over the past few years. She says, “I’ve been bogged down with trying to be the perfect Mormon girl. When my life started to not resemble the laid out plan I had written in Young Women’s, it amplified the building pressure.” All of this was compounded by her OCD as the pressure continues to grow.

For some, leaving religion is the best choice in order to find their personal voices and experiences. This is true for McKaylee Orton. Her work “A Woman in The Church” is moving and visceral. Three women are being crushed by the strong coiled body of a snake, blood oozing from the women down the body of the snake. The women’s arms on the far left hang lifeless and phrases like “chosen vessel,” “destroy her if she abides not,” and “be fruitful” stretch across the women’s faces. The image would feel utterly broken and destructive if not for the woman on the far right who reaches her arm up, hand wrapped tightly around the snake’s neck. She will not go down without a fight and she will help her sisters. In her statement, Orton shares that her experience with OCD and religion had her putting on a sweet, obedient deposition on the outside but that inside it felt like a snake tearing through her guts, leaving her voiceless. As Orton has gained the abilities needed to navigate through the dark side of her religious devotion she has concluded that, “It won’t be passed to more women. I can choose my own fate.”

McKaylee Orton, “A Woman In The Church,” mixed media

Many artists spoke about ways they have learned to cope with their religious OCD, gaining tools that help them find their voices and live their lives in ways where their OCD no longer defines them. Sarah Waldron Brinton’s “Permission to Heal” speaks to this and to the discomfort that is often felt by those on these healing journeys. Brinton’s work was a little foam mattress with pillows that look like pills and a blanket with the words “I am allowed to heal” on it. Brinton shares that medication is part of her process along with taking on a personal paradigm shift that healing is actually possible. While OCD no longer defines her, her recover takes constant effort. She thanks those who have supported her, including medical professionals and the Savior, and hopes that those who see her work can take it as their sign that they are allowed to heal.

Katelyn Field-Garcia’s “Intrusive Thoughts Roll” also speaks to the discomfort found in healing. This work is modeled after prayer rolls that are found in LDS temples. Prayer rolls contain the names of individuals in need of prayers. The names are submitted by temple attendees by writing on a small piece of paper and placing the name in a small wooden box. Field-Garcia invites those with OCD to write down their intrusive thoughts and place them inside the work for safekeeping. While accepting intrusive thoughts can be terrifying and painful, it can be healing. Field-Garcia says “This piece explores the discomfort of accepting what can feel repulsive or blasphemous and the healing power of shared suffering.”

I Am Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire was an impeccable show. The works flowed together creating a feeling of support and understanding. The show left viewers with a better understanding of what those who suffer from religious OCD might feel and experience. It was both informative and deeply emotional.

Sarah Waldron Brinton, “Permission to Heal,” Foam, flannel, fleece, polyfill

I Am Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire, Writ and Vision, Provo, Dec. 2 – 22.

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