Mormon Artist

Richard Oman

Richard Oman recently retired as curator at the Museum of Church History and Art.
Photo courtesy Pam Oman

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in a little farming town called Moses Lake, Washington. I used to go to the library a lot and I remember getting a book—one of these big coffee table books, a book about Gothic cathedrals. I had never seen anything like it before.

It wasn’t until quite late in my college studies at BYU that I first took a class in art history. Then I ended up taking another one in architectural history. It was like all kinds of lights went on. I loved history, but here I was looking at history not in documents or words but with visual images. I thought, “What a fascinating way to study history, by looking at all this gorgeous stuff!” I ended up going up to the University of Washington in Seattle for graduate school and I was in hog heaven up there.

One of the things that was seminal for me was an art history class I had at BYU from Cohan Matthews. Professor Matthews told me, “When you go up to the University of Washington, take a class in Northwest Indian Art.” He had taken some kind of sabbatical up there and one of the things he did was study the art of the Indians up there. So, in deference to my fond feelings for Professor Matthews, I signed up for a class on Northwest Indian Art.

What I learned is that the incredible aesthetic visual system the Northwest Indians had developed was kind of like a Bach fugue. It was a very illuminating experience for me to understand how aesthetic structures work in different cultures and why it was important to carefully study and learn how their system functioned.

You’re talking about the system of symbols—animals and totems—they use to tell stories?

Yes, I’m talking about how they make lines, eyes, mouths, how they design it. There is a design structure. It has very strict rules.

I learned that sometimes the greatest art comes, not by “anything goes,” but by working within a highly sophisticated system. That’s why I compared it to a Bach fugue. Bach wasn’t just writing a bunch of notes. The way he wrote and put them together was an important part of the cohesion of the art form.

The other thing I learned was to expand my concept of what art is. I had thought that art was an oil painting with a big, gold frame on it or a marble sculpture or what have you. I realized that it could be the carved horn of a mountain goat in the form of a spoon or a huge cedar log carved and made into a canoe and the way the canoe was designed and embellished.

Then I went on to study more tribal art with various aspects of Native American art, Spanish Colonial art, modern Mexican muralists, Melanesian, Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, African, then the European tradition, and a couple of those that really caught my attention were the Byzantine and the medieval tradition.

I think one of the reasons for that is those were art traditions that were profoundly religious. The more I studied the history of art, the more I came to understand that most art in the history of the world has been religious art. That was another illuminating realization, especially being an active Latter-day Saint.

When you study those Western traditions, you realize they had their own aesthetic structure but what was driving the art was a religious faith and a cultural cohesion. It was no longer a fringe decoration of the culture, it was the art that expressed what they most profoundly believed and who they were. Those are tall orders and these were orders that were usually met quite eloquently.

How did you end up at the Museum of Church History and Art?

There was a job opening in the Church Historical Department. My friend told me they were looking for somebody with a background in history and museum studies. I had worked at the Seattle Art Museum as I went through grad school, so I applied and they ended up sending me a plane ticket to come down and interview. The rest is history. I became a member of the Church Historical Department and I’ve been doing that for thirty-four years. I retired a year and a half ago.

My responsibilities were to basically draw up the parameters of what a museum program should be for the Church, then work at developing collections. What an exciting thing! I thought this was kind of strange, putting together an art collection for the Church. Here’s this American church, and the one class I’d never taken was history of American art.

It was interesting when I started studying the demography of the Church, realizing that the Church is expanding in places mostly outside America, most rapidly in the areas where I tended to do my academic study. So I feel like it was the hand of the Lord guiding me and saying, “You have to give voice to all these folks out there coming into the Church, and our definitions have to broaden sufficiently to embrace a broader sweep of His children.” So I became a crusader in that area to do what I could to broaden our perspectives so the Saints all over the world would be celebrated.

The Church has a huge collection of Polynesian art that has come by way of gifts to General Authorities, so much so that we have loaned pieces to the Bernice Bishop Museum in Honolulu and the Smithsonian Museum. It really is a world-class collection in the art they have.

I went down to Tucson, Arizona for a museum conference one time and I thought I’d take the scenic way through the reservations—the Navajos and Hopis and pueblos in New Mexico. I found out we have branches all over the place down there, and what I discovered is that some of the finest artists within those cultures are Latter-day Saints, particularly among the Hopis for their pottery. Eventually that discovery led to an exhibition at the Church History Museum. It was part of this ongoing process of discovering the wonderful art made by Latter-day Saints in all different techniques and mediums all over the world.

This interest in LDS artists around the world eventually led to the creation of a worldwide Church art competition. The impetus for that was that we were developing collections pretty well in terms of the Wasatch Front, Utah, Idaho—the old geographical core—but what about the Saints in Nigeria or Peru? So we came up with this idea of having an international art competition and opening it up to LDS artists all over the world, having the competition play a role in expanding the Church’s collection. When I look at my legacy at the Church History Museum, one of the more significant things I did was getting that started. It’s still going and goes every three years. We’ve discovered some phenomenal artists from around the world as a result of that.

What were some of your favorite experiences or realizations while working at the museum?

One of the more exciting things was working with the temple and the Physical Facilities Department looking at the paintings in temples. These are our great cathedrals and we decorate them.

I’ve learned that landscape painting can be significant religious art. We use beautiful landscape murals in our temples again today, reviving that old tradition. These big murals are landscapes, and that’s interesting because I don’t know of another tradition that sees landscape painting as religious art. What we’re doing is celebrating God’s creation, and much of the temple revolves around the creative process of the world. Here we have these beautiful landscapes that tend to localize the temple. We do a landscape painting of the land the Lord has made. We don’t put cities and people all bustling around. It tends to be pure nature because what we’re doing is celebrating not what we have done but what the Lord has done.

It starts making sense when you understand the theology structure and the temple ritual structure, but it also makes sense when you learn that in the early days of the Church, President Brigham Young sent a group of men to Paris to learn how to paint murals in the temple. They came back doing these beautiful Impressionist landscapes.

The beginning of our art tradition here in Utah was very dependent upon the converts coming in from Europe—the majority of our painters and sculptors and furniture makers were British and Scandinavian. As I saw the modern expansion of the Church internationally, I thought of this wonderful phrase: “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” The growth of artistic tradition in the nineteenth century was internationally based, and much of our expansion in the last years has been internationally based. So we have a continuity going on.

I studied and built a collection of early Mormon pioneer furniture. I expected to find a collective style like the Shakers because it was preached from the pulpit in the tabernacle that we should build our own furniture to be provident. What I discovered is that there wasn’t a great Mormon furniture style, but there was great Mormon furniture. The Article of Faith that says, “anything virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy, or of good report, we seek after these things”—well, that’s a very open-ended kind of belief. Brigham Young used to say that it was the job of the elders of Israel to go out and gather truth wherever they could find it. He said to go into the jaws of hell if there was truth down there because the gospel embraces all truth.

Hartman Rector was asked by an Acoma Indian one time at a stake conference down in Albuquerque what he would have to give up in order to become a Latter-day Saint. Hartman replied very wisely, “Nothing that is true.” If we see that in terms of our artistic traditions, that’s pretty expansive.

We can see that in an eternal perspective of an ever-widening circle of truth. It just continues until it embraces everything.

Zion implies a strong sense of community. One of the things I learned in tribal art around the world is that it’s very deeply embedded in the cultures that created it. It’s not “Look at me, I want to be different.” It’s “This celebrates us,” this embracing of the audience by the artist and the audience embracing the artist. There’s a strong sense of connectedness, and I see some strong components of that in the gospel.

What makes Mormon art distinctively Mormon? What I came to is that it wasn’t a question of technique or style or medium, it was a statement of ideas. What makes Mormon art “Mormon” is the Mormon-ness in it. What stories are they telling? What ideas are they trying to communicate? That became a significant part of our collection development at the museum. We tried to reach out and encourage, search for, and collect art that was saying something about the Mormon experience.

I did a show at the museum one time on Lehi’s vision of the tree of life. We had art from all over the world with an incredible range of styles, all on a common theme. I thought it was very interesting to watch people go through the exhibit. We had a wide range of backgrounds socio-economically, educationally, etc., yet they were all relating to this art. It told me that if we have art that has a common denominator of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it builds incredible bridges. If you were to say, “We’re going to have an exhibit on the folk art of Peru or West Africa,” my guess is that you’d have a really small audience. But say, “We’re going to have an exhibit on Lehi’s vision of the tree of life,” and it’s like walking into a testimony meeting with people from all over the world. They’re bearing their testimonies in their native languages but they are bearing their testimonies. The spirit of that resonates and reaches out and connects.

I think of the international art competition—they have an incredible range of styles and techniques and mediums yet put together a remarkable exhibit with cohesion because it has a common theme of Mormon lifestyle, history, beliefs, etc. I don’t know of another institution that could pull that off. The logistics of getting the art here from all over the world is quite a feat, but to create a sense of cohesion within the exhibition with all the ranging styles is an amazing thing. It speaks well of the logistical communication system of the Church. The result is this huge, international, diverse exhibit. The gospel really does pull people together and there are cultural and aesthetic components of what it means to build Zion.

I think that’s a great example of the individual meeting the community. We’ve been commanded to use our talents. I think of Captain Moroni and all the work he did for his people—he took the great talents that he cultivated and threw them into the community-consecrated pot.

Theologically, Latter-day Saints are supposed to be involved in a process that eventually leads to creating worlds themselves. When we say that the Lord is our light, he is also our role model, and one of the names of the Lord is the Creator. We as Latter-day Saints have an imperative to create. It’s up there with things like love. We have to learn how to love. We can’t just say, “Well, I’m just not that into love. I’m just not that into service,” because those are things we’re supposed to do. We can’t really say, “I’m not into creating things,” because that’s also an imperative for us.

I started looking at what it means to create. How does the Lord do it? The most obvious thing is to look at the world here and ask, “How did he know what to do?” Well, of course he’s God and knows everything, but he gives us some good clues for how to go about the creative process. The way he did it was to create “worlds like unto worlds heretofore created.” In other words, he looked at the historical tradition of his Father and so on and thought, “There are things we can learn here.”

Then I looked at the scripture in D&C 121 where the Lord is telling the Prophet Joseph how to go about building the Nauvoo temple, and one of the things that I find very interesting is that God tells Joseph to bring men with the “knowledge of antiquity.” You start getting quite a historical celebration here.

Look at the very last verse in the Old Testament. We usually see it in terms of genealogy, but look at it for a minute in terms of art. Malachi is telling us why all these 1,200-some pages of scripture are important: “To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” I thought of this in terms of art and wondered what we learn from this. How do you turn the hearts of children to their fathers? We’re back again to how the Lord created the world using historical precedence. Are there some ideas our ancestors had that might be applicable today in what I’m making? Might I learn from these people? The whole idea of scripture is that old, dead people have things to teach young, live people. The past is full of rich wisdom that can benefit our lives. What does that mean when you start looking at art from that same point of view? Suddenly the past is this incredible university for the arts.

Turning the hearts of the fathers to the children might also mean that maybe we should be creating art that is so wonderful that it will feed our children and our children’s children and so on. I think of looking at the Sistine Chapel years ago with my family. We went there and I thought, “Michelangelo did this half a millennium ago and it’s still feeding us today.” The same goes for Egypt. The architecture is still pretty awe-inspiring, or you look at the bas reliefs in the tombs of Saqqara with the daily life of the people four thousand years ago and it’s still as fresh and inspiring as the day it was made. When we create, we can ask ourselves the question, “Am I doing something that will still have meaning and still inspire untold generations to come?” In reading Malachi we have that imperative to reach back and embrace good and truthful things wherever we find them, not just in a broad geographical spread but also in time as well. To me that’s a really expansive way of looking at art.

And then we have connecting. Notice it’s talking about fathers and children. Well, there’s a familial connectedness here. It’s embracing those who have come before us and those who come after us as family, and there’s an affectionate aspect there. I think there should be a desire to communicate profoundly and clearly that our audience is worth connecting to.

That brings me to the idea of what it means to be a community of Latter-day Saints. We reach out and connect in some profoundly complete kinds of ways. We do home teaching to people who may be, in many respects, quite different than we are, but we have our home teaching beats and out we go. In the process we learn about the shared humanity that transcends all kinds of socio-economic divisions within our society. As children of our Father in Heaven, we feel a profound connectedness. There’s a respect for our audience that that should generate.

We do the same thing with missionary work. We carry the gospel all over the world and ultimately we have to love the people we are carrying the gospel to or we won’t be able to carry it to them. That sense of love and affection for the audience is something that also is part and parcel of creating gospel art.

Impressionists seem to have an interesting connection theologically. They, with few exceptions, were interested in their landscapes, like the Mormon artists you mentioned. Also, we understand that the literal, divine light of Christ permeates all things and showers over all things. Do you think there’s any kind of connection there?

We have paintings in temples, murals of the West. We are at ground zero for some pretty spectacular mountains and canyons; we have the rural, Mormon-built landscape; and we have the idea that we’ll help the desert to blossom as a rose. There’s this kind of theology around landscapes in relation to building Zion. I think those are some of the reasons why, as Latter-day Saints, we developed a rather rich landscape tradition in painting, and it continues in our time.

I think your idea of light is another one. A lot of Mormon art tends to be somewhat optimistic and our theology tends to be optimistic. We can understand the persecutions the Saints went through, but we look at them as a kind of refiner’s fire. Thinking of Elder Maxwell’s talks where he talked about personal trials and the bottom line was “What does the Lord want to teach me from this?” Even in the midst of really hard things we think, “This too shall give thee experience,” and this will ultimately make us stronger and better people if we respond as the Lord would have us respond.

We look at the future history of the world and we know that much of the world will be cleansed for the Second Coming of the Lord. The prophets basically say, “Live the gospel and things will go well for you.” Even though our eschatology could be a morbid fixation, we don’t have a morbid fixation. There’s an ultimate sense of buoyancy and optimism.

This whole idea of celebration works its way into Mormon art. The existentialism and angst of darkness and despair really is not very compatible theologically with the optimism of the gospel, and I think that translates across into art. Some art critics out in the big world could look at our art and say, “Oh, it’s just superficial,” and they might say that because it’s so darned optimistic.

In much of contemporary art criticism is the idea that art is supposed to be about despair. If you want to do “serious art,” you have to do art about death and destruction and suffering and despair and hopelessness. But if you’re doing something about love, affection, families and children, loving spouses, then it’s “sentimental tripe.” That’s not so much a comment about art as it is a comment about the commentators. If we have to look at our souls and reject all the parts about hope and love and commitment—if you have to throw out some of your best self to be considered a legitimate artist—then it seems like that’s a pretty heavy price to pay.

When we go back to the teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and others, we learn to gather up the good stuff, and I don’t think hopelessness is part of the good stuff. It’s a misunderstanding of the purpose of life. That will probably affect how some people may view LDS art or work by LDS artists, but the truth of the matter is that most of the public doesn’t go along with that stuff. An old poem says, “Laugh, and the whole world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.” I think it may be why some artistic traditions in our time don’t have much traction—because they don’t feed the soul very much.

In a world where there is a lot of despair, people say, “Yikes! I’ve got enough of that already! Give me something that feeds my soul and gives me some hope.” Some of the critics might be back there saying, “Oh, we just have to bring on the despair,” but that’s not what the people are saying. Frankly, I think that puts LDS artists in a rather good position because we actually believe the hope. In a time when the social fabric is being rent, even as families disintegrate or never get off the ground, LDS artists are doing work about family life that resonates with people.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary Mormon art?

One thing we need to do as a Latter-day Saint people is expand our incorporating of art into our own home environment. The Church History Museum has helped that a lot, I think. We have hundreds of thousands of people go through the museum and they see the art and there’s an increased interest in that. There’s a wider range of art prints showing up in chapels than we used to see. Now we’re seeing murals in temples and original easel paintings in temples. There’s a trickle-down process of education—first seeing and experiencing the art, then wanting to make that part of your own physical environment. We’re still on a big curve there, but it’s coming along.

I think another challenge for us is to more fully understand that just as we translate the gospel into lots of different languages, there are also different visual languages that are being created and we need to learn some of those if we are to share in the ideas being expressed.

Another challenge is raising the expectation of our artists to create things that express profoundly religious ideas of the gospel that can nourish us. The thematic content and ideas expressed should feed us not only aesthetically but spiritually. If you look at the history of world art, that’s mostly what it’s doing. Given the light they had, that’s what they were trying to do.

I think those are things that Mormon consumers of art need to expand on. If we’re going to have a wonderful art tradition, somebody needs to support the artists so that can happen.

We have a lot of artists who are making fine art, but it’s not to Latter-day Saints, so the Mormon aspect of it sometimes has to go underground, although it’s often there.

Brian Kershisnik is a good example of that. His work is profoundly religious, and I think people really resonate with that. He teaches some profound gospel ideas in his art. Jim Christensen is doing some of the same kinds of things. It’s possible to get Latter-day Saint messages out there.

From a standpoint of LDS artists, one thing we need to realize is that we need to be really good at it if we’re going to make it. We can’t be almost as good as other people. We have to be very, very excellent. We have to look at the options the world gives us out there, tread through the minefield, and pull out the jewels. There are some aspects of contemporary art that are mines—they’ll blow your foot off! But there are also some jewels.

Let me give you a story to explain this idea. When I was in graduate school and would talk to my fellow students about an upcoming holiday, I noticed that most of them had very little connection with their extended families. If you’d ask them about their great-grandparents or their second or third cousins, they almost never knew them. There was a lot of social disconnect. If you talked to the art historians, the other people they knew were the other art historians. I was going to a married student ward there in Washington and I knew people who were dental students, law students, people getting their degree in music—an incredibly wide range of academic disciplines. The gospel does that. It puts us in contact with lots of different kinds of people.

LDS artists need to be careful not to buy into the isolationist idea that is part of the contemporary art movement. If we’re spending our days creating, then eventually we’ll want to sell that art if we want to eat any food or put a roof over our head. I think the social component of being LDS gives us a connection with our brothers and sisters, teaches us about the universality of the human soul, and teaches us how to connect with people. It’s a great asset to LDS artists in creating art that actually communicates with people as opposed to just piling up in the studio.

If you go to a party and talk to people that graduated in English, if they’re sitting around talking about style in literature, you know these guys probably aren’t making it. Listen to the people talking about copyrights and royalties because they’re the ones most likely supporting themselves with their craft. That isn’t to say that everything has to be economically driven, but artists have to eat food and stay dry in the midst of storms, so there has to be a financial component somewhere.

Also, if someone wants to be good at something, they have to spend some time doing it. If they’re going to spend a lot of time doing it, they’ve got to be recompensed for that or they can’t afford to do it. One way to be recompensed is to sell it.

Besides that, the world needs the art. Heaven knows there’s enough ugliness out there. They need the beauty, the insights, and the inspirational quality that art has to offer. So I don’t think the commercial component of art is a negative thing. I think one of the tragedies art students have is they go through an academic experience of making art, but they’re not exposed to the part that teaches them how to make a living at it. Then they go out and have to do something else because they don’t know how to make art that can connect with people.

If artists can look at themselves a little bit more as a service industry, they’ll probably connect with a lot of people, and the next thing you know, they might actually start supporting themselves with their art in the process. As opposed to making art for three hours on a Saturday afternoon, they’re doing their art sixty-eight hours a week and enjoying it. There’s something to be said for that.

I read recently that President Young was interested in having symbols out in the general community. I don’t think he meant just abstract symbols—circles and squares—but symbols: bread, light, and all sorts of things that refer back to God. Do you think that bears any relevance on our situation?

Brigham Young used to say that the beehive was our communal coat of arms. It reflected the ideas of working together and cooperation and building something sweet. Beehives were all over the place and it’s not coincidental that his own house is called the Beehive House. The most ubiquitous symbol on the Salt Lake temple is the beehive. It’s on every door handle and every piece of etched glass, and there were beehives built into the decorative elements of the plasterwork inside. When the Conference Center was built and President Hinckley walked through and saw the pulpit, one of the first things he said was, “Where are the beehives?” They quickly put beehives on it.

One of the tragedies is that BYU has retired the beehive from their seal and just put “BYU” on it. There’s something good there about spelling out the name of the school, but to lose the symbol of the beehive… It says something about the administration or whatever committee it was that came up with that, being kind of naïve about the nature of symbolism and having a case of historical amnesia. Universities are supposed to be the carriers of our collective meaning, and when they care so little about their history that they discard their own visual symbols that have historical connection, it tells me they probably missed on that one.

If you look at our temples, one of the things you see is an angel Moroni statue at the top. There was a time when we didn’t have angel Moroni statues on the top of all our temples—that’s something that we’ve started to see in our own lifetime. It’s an interesting idea that one of our most beloved identities of our most sacred buildings is a piece of art. And we have lots of different shapes and sizes of buildings, but the way you know it’s a temple is there’s an angel Moroni up there. A piece of gold-leafed sculpture!

The idea of communication through symbols and visual imagery, that’s good stuff and it preaches to the eyes as well as the ears, and I think that’s an important thing to do. There’s probably a greater expectation for visual communication than there was half a century ago. Our culture as a whole is becoming increasingly visually oriented.

There are a lot of Latter-day Saints who paint spiritual pictures, but there are also a lot who work in not-overtly spiritual themes, even entirely in secular themes. In what ways do you think artists can connect with a broader audience, both in and out of the Church?

One of the ways that is useful to connect within the Church is the Church-wide art competition that happens every three years. LDS artists ought to look very carefully at that. Art competitions give the artist opportunity to speak directly and sometimes it’s kind of nice to be able to do that. So I would strongly encourage artists to take advantage of that. The door’s open, the welcome mat is out.

It’s becoming increasingly competitive. The Church art competition gets about a thousand entries and they’ve got room for about 120. The art comes from all over the world, but they tend to weight it a little more with art from other countries because it’s playing an important role in acquisitions. If you actually had to travel around to all those different places and dig the art out, that would be really expensive, but in this case the artists dig themselves out and present themselves, which is nice.

Say somebody is living in a town where the only restaurant is a McDonald’s. They might say, “What if I opened a nice Middle Eastern or French or Chinese restaurant? There seems to be a need for one of those.” Artists should look at the culture and the community in which they live and ask themselves, “How can I serve here? What can I do that meets people’s needs in every way—aesthetically, emotionally, and spiritually?” Some people might say, “Let’s give them one more quick hamburger stand,” but you don’t have to do that. Artists need to be connected to their community and serve their community and see their art as a way of service, and if they do, they’ll probably start making a living at it.

There’s this idea you hear from more mature artists about just getting out of the way when the inspiration comes. All sorts of artists have said that the Spirit moves them to make music or visual arts. The talents you develop and cultivate enable you to be a better vehicle for the Spirit to speak through.

That’s true. Bach was certainly that way. He made profoundly spiritual compositions, but he was also the musician for various religious and political leaders and he’d have to make a significant composition every week. You could say, “Well, it’s a job,” and yes, he had to support his family, but look at the result of that “job”! We’re still reaping the benefits.

Almost all of the great art of the past was from a commission. That means a patron came to an artist and said, “I want you to do such-and-such a work of art in this style, in this subject, etc.” It got us a lot of Bach cantatas. It got us the Sistine Chapel ceiling. When artists reject that option, they marginalize themselves. The broader public doesn’t sit around saying to themselves, “Oh, I feel so bad, I’ve marginalized an artist.” The artist doesn’t even show up on their radar, and the public sits around eating junk food when there’s someone who could have made a great meal for them.

The problem I’ve had with my art personally is feeling like I don’t want to paint scenes from scripture or other things that would sell. I wasn’t concerned with being a “sellout,” but authentically I didn’t feel like I could conjure up that kind of subject matter and convey it in a message. And so I’m in a position where I’ve made that decision and now the other decision is made up for me to get a “regular job” to feed my family.

You might want to rethink your decision. Look at your life and ask yourself, “What do I value? What attitudes, what truths, what religious insights, what family insights, what psychological insights are most deeply moving to me? How can I communicate that to others?” There might be some people out there who share those same views and ideas.

I’ve heard you talk about your attitude towards your little girl. My guess is that virtually every family out there has some of those same kinds of feelings about their children. How would you express that visually? It means something to you, so how would you communicate that to somebody else? You may have a vehicle in your aesthetic tool chest or you may have to go out and buy some additional tools. It’s a challenge for growth on the part of artists as well as the public and you may need to broaden your skill base in order create something that’s in big demand. One of the beginning aspects of art is maybe a sense of humility to develop the skill package necessary to communicate. ❧

Read more interviews or follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates.