One of my favorite and most practical parts of my book Women at Church is a section called "Making Women More Visible in Our Sunday Meetings." (see page 126) This section talks about the importance of actually seeing more women in the tableaux that make up our Sunday worship experiences: as we enter a chapel, we can visually identify the Young Men setting up the sacrament, the male bishopric or stake representatives coming to the stand or greeting people. In our classrooms and Primary room, the pictures on the walls are almost exclusively of men, either men from the scriptures or our modern day prophets and apostles. As I say in the book, "Little in this tableau indicates the tireless backstage work of the ward's women and girls in pursuit of our spiritual health," and, I would add, the ecclesiastical strength abundant in our female leaders and scriptural role models.
As I've traveled around the country speaking about the book, men and women have taken great pleasure in reporting to me the initiative they've taken to change this particular male-dominant perspective. One Primary president reported on her search for photos of the Primary general presidency, to add to her Primary room walls alongside the apostles. In my own ward recently, the High Councilor was accompanied by his wife, rather than a youth speaker or recently returned missionary. I've heard of Young Women acting as greeters, or giving the announcements in Sacrament meetings, in attempts to familiarize the ward with them in the same way ward members are familiar with the Young Men.
But just as crucial to changing the culture of women's visibility at church is the increased presence of women in our art. Images of strong women from the scriptures and greater appreciation for our female leaders today will help us all recognize that women work as spiritual leaders and as wholly developed people, worthy of their own attention and admiration. But we don't have an established visual iconography in the Church that clues us visually to key players and characteristics of those players, like how Mary always wears pale blue which are colors associated with royalty, peace and nature.
We have artists who have crafted our shared cultural images of stories and people through their inclusion in the Gospel Art Kit and other approved Church materials: Arnold Friberg's muscly Abinadi established a mid-century tradition of heroic mural scenes. Del Parson's golden-maned images of the Savior are almost canonical. We've adopted the great works of non-LDS artists like Carl Bloch. We appropriately celebrate the truly great work of Minerva Teichert, one of our only classically trained artists to seriously deal with female biblical characters as subject matter. But almost exclusively, our shared iconography has been realistic, as opposed to abstract, and the paucity of actual female characters in the scriptures and in our history has meant that our shared visual experience has focused heavily on men.
Enter J. Kirk Richards, a Utah-based artist who specializes in religiously-themed work. I first encountered Richards' work at the home of some friends where I saw one of his Cristo series. Although Mormonism has produced more fine painters than I can list out here (although see here, here and here for just a few of my favorites), I've been delighted to see Richards' work hit mainstream Mormon culture, as evidenced by his work with Deseret Book and last year's image on the cover of the Ensign. What's most interesting to me about this mainstream acceptance is that Richards' work is highly, although not exclusively, abstract, and not being able to make out the realistic features of the characters is not something we Mormons have a lot of experience with in our church art.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending a private viewing of one of Richards' recently completed paintings, Breath of Life, which now lives in a private collection. Notice anything unusual about this portrayal of Adam receiving life, below? I can't describe how the image of the female deity, aiding the Father, struck me when I first saw this work. It was like I could actually envision, for perhaps the first time, the partnership of Heavenly Father and Mother as they created jointly, as we know they did from the book of Moses. Richards was present to talk about the painting, and acknowledge that there is a "Team Eve" and a "Team Mother" when it comes to identifying the female figure (he declared that he's on "Team Edward," but did admit he intended for it to be Heavenly Mother).
This is my own image of Richards speaking about the painting in the home where it now resides. This photo doesn't do it justice. It's a magnificent work. He has been working on the painting for several years, and I found photos of the painting in older iterations, as shown here, and he wrote a bit on his blog about the process of creating the painting.
What would it be like to see more images of the feminine divine in our church buildings, or on the cover of the Ensign? How about images of Emma Smith and Eliza R Snow and Belle Spafford used so abundantly in our Gospel Art Kits and LDS.org materials that we could recognize their characteristics as easily as we can identify Heber J. Grant's trim beard or David O. McKay's white mane? While we have many LDS artists, like Caitlin Connolly (one of my personal favorites who painted the image on the cover of my book)and Annie Henrie, who explore the richness of the female life, there is special power in representing named, identified, recognizable women who are known mentors and canonical figures. Efforts like A Mother Here, an art contest designed to reward images and poetry about the Heavenly Mother, have had limited penetration into our mainstream culture, but I believe that if we can get the images of our Primary general presidency on the walls of our Primary rooms, we can also look forward to the day when our images of spiritual heroes more readily include women as well as men.