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Everyone who visits the new exhibit at the Museum of Church History and Art will be impressed. But many might walk through it and leave without discovering the meaning of the exhibit's title, "Sacred Connections."

It's obvious that this is an exhibit of art by Native Americans of the Southwest, many of whom are Latter-day Saints. However, the real meaning is reserved for the perceptive viewer who penetrates the show's facade and begins to interpret the symbolism abounding there. He is also introduced to a new word - hozho - and hopefully absorbs its meaning.Exhibition curator Richard Oman says that hozho is Navajo for "beauty." But the definition is much deeper than we might expect. "It's the idea that beauty is more than just aesthetics. It's about attitude and values, about balance and symmetry in one's life."

He added that this kind of beauty is about creative, productive people who are involved in good works. It's about reverence and being able to see the sacred in everything around us in terms of how we live our lives.

When this concept of hozho begins to sink in, the viewer catches a vision of what motivates these Native American artists to work in certain mediums and the symbolism behind the styles, motifs, colors and lines they use.

Oman says he has been preparing for this exhibit for 14 years. During that time, he has traveled to Arizona and New Mexico at least once a year in search of quality artwork by Native Americans who were members of the LDS Church.

For the past 12 years, he has been collecting Native American art on behalf of the Museum of Church History and Art.

It was inevitable that this project would lead to an exhibition. "When you get a critical mass of material items," Oman said, "you start lobbying for a show. Eventually they buy your idea." In fact, museum board approval to hold this exhibit was given six years ago.

Oman pointed out that 80 percent to 85 percent of the art in this show is part of the museum's permanent collection. In addition to other contributions, 18 pieces were borrowed from the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, and a number of the historical photographs were loaned by the Smithsonian Institution.

When Oman visited the Southwest in an attempt to locate LDS Native American artists, he learned the art of sleuthing. He checked church directories; visited Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo tribes; attended branches of the LDS Church; talked with traders who were members (even stake presidents), and haunted contemporary galleries in art museums in the area.

"I soon realized that this was a whole lot bigger than I thought."

During the process of identifying the best LDS Native American artists, he discovered many things, some of which he has tried to inculcate in this exhibit.

1. Potterymaking (and other arts and crafts) is handed down from generation to generation.

2. A strong connection is established between family members, since children are taught the art by parents. Sometimes three generations - grandparents, parents and children - work together creating pottery, weaving or whatever the medium in which they specialize.

3. The making of art by Native Americans is almost always done in a home setting. Oman reminds the viewer of this by placing a modern kitchen table in the middle of this exhibit of Native American art.

Oman added that Native American artists today live in both ancient and present worlds.

For example, it's hard to believe that the highly contemporary pottery seen in the exhibit was fired using incredibly low-tech methods. Ceramic pieces are placed inside a hole in the ground and a fire is built over them.

"The materials they use spring right out of the ground," Oman said. However, some materials are found on the ground - such as dried sheep and horse dung, used for firing. "For example, horse manure sucks oxygen out of clay," he said, "and the red color on the pots turns to black."

Although these artists adhere closely to traditional techniques, Oman said, "Native art is not static."

As evidence, he pointed to the Yei pictorial rugs; the union of refined Hopi pottery techniques with Navajo motifs and designs; a breakthrough in the variety of textures in alabaster carvings by Oreland Joe; and Wayne Sek-a-quap-te-wa's jewelry, where a whole new concept of overlay has been used.

As I admired these and other artworks, I was fascinated by how effectively Mormon themes, stories and imagery have been integrated with Southwest motifs and designs. And this integration doesn't hamper the effectiveness of elements of art and principles of design.

Although much of the art in the show has been created by living artists, some of the pieces - rugs, saddle blankets, basketry, jewelry - date back to the 19th century. One rug hanging in the entrance dates back to 1890. Before it could be displayed, it had to undergo extensive conservation in Denver.

In 1930, a huge rug hanging on the wall behind the hogan was commissioned for the Arizona Temple in Mesa. When finished, it was proclaimed the largest Navajo rug ever made.

Some of the other highlights of the show:

- "The Last Supper," blackware pottery by Harrison Begay.

- "Noah's Ark," a ceramic sculpture created by three generations of the Naranjo family.

- Ceramic pots by Tammy Garcia, Thomas Polacca, Lucy Leuppe McKelvey and others. My favorite: McKelvey's "Echoes of the Ancient Ones."

- A variety of woven blankets ranging from the "Pound Rug" representing the low point of Navajo weaving to the Yei rugs filled with stylized "holy people" to Burnluster rugs where 53 colors from vegetable dyes have been used.

- The focus on the renaissance of Hopi pottery, where contemporary potters studied motifs on potsherds from the 16th century and incorporated them into contemporary pots.

LDS themes surfacing frequently in the show include scriptures, chapels and temples, missionary work, families and church leaders.

Oman pointed out that much of the work displayed in "Sacred Connections" is less than 10 years old. "Some of the finest Native American artists who have ever lived are alive right now and actively producing." And their work not only reflects a high aesthetic and technical quality, but also profoundly spiritual aspects that are an integral part of hozho.

"Sacred Connections: Art and Native American Latter-Day Saints in the Southwest" will continue through Aug. 20, 1995. Chief curator Richard Oman oversaw the project, assisted by Mark Staker. Reed Miller was the designer for the show. Also on exhibit at the museum: East Gallery: "Jesus Once Was a Little Child . . . " (through September 1995), designed especially for children; Theater Lower Gallery, "Joseph and Hyrum Smith: Brothers in Life, Companions in Death," through Jan. 16, 1995. All exhibits are free. Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and holidays. The museum is located at 45 N. West Temple. For more information, call 240-3310.