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Utah artists make spirituality visual — but not in the ways you'd expect

SALT LAKE CITY — For most contemporary artists, spirituality and religious themes are not go-to subject matters.

But, according to Ashlee Whitaker, curator of the BYU Museum of Art exhibition “The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture,” this is just one way that the local art community breaks the mold.

“We have a unique art scene in that we do have artists that are really keen and intent on expressing spiritual and religious themes in their work,” Whitaker said. “We’ve created an interesting market and an interesting niche for these artists to practice as contemporary religious artists.”

Religious themes reign at two of Utah's museums this fall, with two new exhibitions at the Springville Museum of Art and one at Brigham Young University. All three shows are examples of a flourishing tradition of contemporary religious art in Utah.

At Springville, the curated invitational “Sacred Spaces: Archetypes and Symbols” highlights works exploring archetypes and symbols associated with sacred spaces, while the juried “32nd Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah” displays artists’ reflections of spiritual beliefs. The BYU show likewise focuses on spirituality, exploring the relationship between contemporary visual art and scripture from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While contemporary religious art is difficult to define as a whole, it is generally recognized for its diverse methods of expressing belief systems.

“I don’t think there are definitive (characteristics) to modes of expressing belief,” said Laura Allred Hurtado, global acquisitions art curator for the LDS Church History Museum. “Like languages, people express their faith in varied (ways), both aesthetically and with differing (intents) and approaches.”

Contemporary religious art in Utah is similarly defined by its breadth of artists, vision, experimentation and personal meaning, according to Rita Wright, director of the Springville Museum of Art.

“The thing I love about contemporary religious art in the state of Utah is that it is so exciting, experimental, varied, and I think therefore very relevant and meaningful,” Wright said. “I think Utah is incredibly vital and important in not only a national but an international market of people looking at sacred-type things with their art.”

The art form is also unique in artists’ use of contemporary religious art as a method of self-expression, said Emily Larsen Boothe, the Springville museum’s assistant curator and collections manager.

“I feel like a lot of the artists are getting very personal with the work that they’re creating and expressing their own very personal spiritual beliefs and ideas,” Boothe said. “It becomes very relatable as you see that other people are grappling with some of the same spiritual questions and ideas and concerns that you are as well.”

A challenge contemporary religious artists face is representing intangible religious and spiritual concepts in a tangible art form. Whitaker said this concept was a driving idea behind BYU’s “The Interpretation Thereof” exhibition, which draws a parallel between expressing spirituality through art in the same way scriptural writers did through the limited written human language.

“They often employed symbol and allegory and metaphor to try and really give their readers a sense of these profound doctrines, and in that same way, I think you see a lot of artists … go to those same kind of things … as a way to try and capture very personal, very profound sacred concepts,” Whitaker said.

Artist Frank McEntire, whose work will be featured in Springville’s “Sacred Spaces” exhibition, said he portrays faith by incorporating recognizable religious objects into his work.

“I see them as attention-getters because most people are familiar with a Mary or a crucifix and may be familiar with a Krishna sculpture,” McEntire said. “What I try to do with my work is to use religious objects to create that participation in a discussion about the issues of our time.”

Contemporary artists also face the burden and opportunity of competing with religious art of the past, Hurtado said, as they try to find new ways of expressing spirituality. But many contemporary religious artists have developed unique personal styles that help their work stand out, Whitaker said.

“It’s natural that as they are approaching that religious theme, it comes out as something new and different because they’re cultivating that individual style in all of their works across the gamut,” Whitaker said.

Many stylistic differences exist between contemporary and past religious art, according to artist Chauncey Secrist, whose work was chosen for Springville’s “32nd Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah” show.

“I think the biggest, most fundamental difference is the diversity of perspectives,” Secrist said. “Religious art in much of the world is no longer controlled by religious institutions, allowing for a much more personal approach to religious and spiritual ideas.”

Beth Krensky, another featured artist from Springville’s “Sacred Spaces” exhibition, said contemporary religious art is unique from spiritual art of the past in that it gives artists more freedom of expression.

“I think contemporary artists have more freedom for their ideas to be much broader than one religion and to address issues that cross many spiritual practices and belief systems,” Krensky said.

Artist Justin Wheatley, whose work is shown in BYU’s “The Interpretations Thereof” exhibition, said the audience for contemporary religious art is also unique, as it is a group seeking to experience spiritual art created by artists they can relate to.

“Without a doubt, traditional depictions of religiously themed stories have their place. At the same time, there are many people that don't relate to popular images of Christ. They want and even need something that speaks their language,” Wheatley said. “Contemporary art provides that platform to express our faith in new ways.”

If you go …

What: “Sacred Spaces: Archetypes and Symbols” and “32nd Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah”

Where: The Springville Museum of Art, 126 E. 400 South, Springville

When: Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., though Jan. 10, 2018


Also …

What: “The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture”

Where: The BYU Museum of Art, North Campus Drive, Provo

When: Open Monday and Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., through March 31, 2018