In the worst of times, art can show the best of people. It also often reflects the truth of experiences from difficult times.
For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on some of the worst times in recent history. Unemployment has skyrocketed and the economies of countries worldwide have been hit hard as people were forced into lockdowns at home. Among those most affected by the pandemic’s negative economic ripples are artists — those whose income and work is rarely steady to begin with, — explained Glen Nelson, one of the co-executive directors for the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts in New York City.
With a desire to help support artists from around the globe through this troubled time and highlight the power of art to not only capture this difficult moment, but perhaps also help people cope with it, the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts announced a series of micro-grants for artists and scholars to be part of a digitally distributed collection titled “Art for Uncertain Times.”
Pulling submissions from Latter-day Saint artists around the world, 50 winners were awarded small grants for their works highlighting the theme of uncertain times.
The winning submissions include works of literature, scholarship, music, dance, film, and visual arts from various mediums, and each share a unique perspective on this moment in time.
“In the church, sometimes we want to be optimistic all the time,” Nelson said, “but sometimes life is bad, it’s hard. And artists are willing to go there and document their experience however they see it. … So these artists are describing what life is like, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking and sometimes it’s funny, but they capture that. They are speaking right from their own hearts.”
One piece, for example, a painting titled “Wrapped Up in a False Sense of Security,” depicts a woman sitting crouched, wrapped in toilet paper and clutching her phone. It’s an image that really helps define the moment, Nelson said. The artist, Kirsten Beitler is a single mom who, because she works at a grocery store, is considered an essential employee and has therefore been exposed to much of the frenzy that surrounded the early days of the pandemic.
The mission of the center is to not only display and perform art and publish scholarship and criticisms by Latter-day Saint artists and scholars, but also to be an archive for all that Latter-day Saint artists and scholars are contributing to the world, Nelson explained.
“We’re always in hunter/gatherer mode,” he said, noting that finding great artists keeps him up at night and inspires him to get out of bed each morning. “We have our work cut out for us because there are artists of significance, doing amazing work everywhere. But that’s one of the great things about an open call like this is that it pulls in artists we’ve never heard of.”
And, due to the success of the “Art for Uncertain Times” series, Nelson said the center has recently put out a second call for submissions from children, ages 4 to 18, for a series called “Art for Uncertain Times: The Next Generation” (submission deadline July 13, 2020).
While the winning selections for the “Art for Uncertain Times” series, which are being displayed on the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts website, are not all strictly faith related, Nelson said a faith promoting aspect of the series for him has been seeing how this time has allowed many artists to recalibrate what is important to them.
Here’s a look at some of the winning pieces and the artists experiences in creating them:
Farina King doesn’t consider herself an artist perse. But as a professor of history and citizen of the Navajo Nation, she is familiar with writing certainly has her own stories to share. After writing an op-ed, published by the Salt Lake Tribune, highlighting the struggles of the Navajo Nation during the pandemic, King decided to submit an essay for the arts series reflecting the concerns of her family, particularly her dad — a 70-year-old doctor and Diné healer on the Navajo reservation. Her essay is titled “Diné Doctor: A Latter-day Saint Story of Healing.”
Before working on this project, King said she had never really asked her father what gave him the desire to become a doctor. When she did ask him, she learned of a remarkable experience he had as a young missionary that inspired him to pursue medicine. His story is one of empowerment, she said. “It’s his testimony.”
King comes from a family of storytellers, she said. Their stories bind them together and this was an opportunity for her father to tell another story from his history and allow him to record it.
King also invited her niece Leah Tiare Smith, an art student at BYU, to participate by creating an image to accompany the essay.
“Everybody has their different talents,” Kind said. “People use the skills they have to do what they can to contribute. I’m a storyteller and an educator and this is what I wanted to share and contribute.”
The Last Lake
New York-based playwright James Best, who wrote and digitally staged a play titled “The Last Lake,” explained that being stuck inside the four walls of his apartment helped him see how the play he was already working on could have broader meaning.
“The idea came from my uncle who was mentally and physically handicap and had been locked in his mind his whole life,” Best explained. “And I was struck by the idea of one day getting to meet him and talk to him and see how the person on the inside is different from the one on the outside.”
Best’s play, which features two characters unable to see each other but having a conversation, became a way of grappling with the complexities of the plan of salvation and is almost an attempt to explain it to himself, Best said. But in some ways it is also a reflection of the pandemic and being afraid of the future.
In writing it, Best said he learned that although he typically doesn’t write overtly spiritual work, all of his work in some sense has spirituality within it.
El Ciclo/The Cycle
As a Spanish-speaking poet, Gabriel González Núñez said when he first saw the call for submissions, he didn’t want to apply because he usually writes only in Spanish. “But then I thought, I can self-translate, and have it in both English and Spanish,” he said.
His poem series titled, “El Ciclo/The Cycle,” includes eight poems inspired by paintings that inspire him as an artist, González Núñez explained. They reflect the cycle of life in which human beings are subject to circumstances that make them vulnerable and desperate one minute and moving forward with renewed hope the next.
Translating each of the eight poems took as much time as it did to creatively compose each of them in the first place, González Núñez said. It was a new experience to translate his own work, but in the end it was worth it.
“The writing process was helpful for me,” he said, adding that it kept him occupied during the entire month of April while he was in lockdown at home. “Being able to work and create this message was helpful to me on a personal level. The creative process was good for the soul.”
He That Keepeth Thee
Daniel E. Gawthrop, a musician and composer, said he wanted to use his gifts of music to comfort and reassure people at this time. Combining text carefully chosen from the books of Isah and Psalms with music he composed himself, Gawthrop wrote “He That Keepeth Thee.”
In uncertain times, Gawthrop said, “art can be used to get through them. It helps us maintain our good hopes for the future.”
In addition to making the score of his composition available, Gawthrop decided to provide a performance recording of the piece. But with performance facilities closed and a very limited number of vocal performers near him at his Twin Falls, Idaho home, Gawthrop said it was a miracle he was able to pull off the recording.
After finding two singers, a baritone and a soprano who agreed to help him record the piece, Gawthrop’s composition came to life.
“Well-done art is something that can reach beyond our boundaries,” Gawthrop said. “We can touch hearts and lift spirits through the arts in a way that supports the forces of heaven. That is a vital thing to do in difficult times and more than worthwhile.”
For dancer Keely Song, the work she submitted was a piece she choreographed and filmed over a year ago. But in the hustle and bustle of daily life, she never got around to editing it and putting it together. Through the grant though, and the break offered by COVID-19, she was able to return to the project.
“In a time when traveling has been limited, it was extremely satisfying to review, watch, and experience our travels of the past,” she said. “During Covid-19 I have had much time to reflect, which is often a gift we don’t allow ourselves to take.”
Her piece titled “Covenant Keepers,” serves as an artistic memory the traveling of the pioneers, she said. “It further reminded me how places and spaces can leave an imprint within our bodies.”
For Song, documenting the effects of the global pandemic in various artistic forms is an important way to record this unprecedented time, she said. “Grants are a lifeline for reminding and validating one’s work and voice. This grant gave me a platform to have my work seen and to see others’ in return.”
Participating in the grant program was a reminder for Song of the good there is in the world. In a moment of difficulty, she said it reminded her that struggle and hardship are there to help people improve themselves, to help them survive and ultimately thrive.