The label "Mormon artist" has a history of describing someone whose work has to do with scriptural topics or fits into the theme of church history."Fifty years ago, you wouldn't identify yourself as a 'Mormon artist' unless what you did was immediately useful to the church — hymns, temple paintings," said Glen Nelson, who lives with his family in Midtown Manhattan and makes his living as a writer and editor.In 1999, Nelson saw a photography exhibition in New York City made up of the works of photographers who were all Latter-day Saints. Nelson recalled later that he was surprised by the fact that he already knew most of them from church."But I had not known they were artists," he said."A group of us immediately decided to organize ourselves somehow in order to become better aware of each other and to provide some system of support for those who aspired to make art of the highest caliber."The Mormon Artists Group was born and began reinforcing the idea that Mormons who are artists, regardless of whether they are jazz composers, choreographers or poets, are "Mormon artists."The group has about 50 participants, the core of whom live in New York City and take turns filling roles to keep the group organized. From there, a monthly newsletter goes to about 1,000 recipients around the globe. Active participants now include those who live and work far from New York City.The group curates exhibitions, collaborates on art projects and conducts research projects regarding LDS art. It also established a lending library, a writer's group, a publishing element and, of course, has a presence online."Now, we're not overly concerned about being immediately useful" in the traditional sense, Nelson said. "Mormon artists today are just trying to be good people, just like a good plumber or a good dentist. But their artwork is a direct response to the life that they're living."Artists who contact Nelson about the group give him the sense that they, as Mormons, still tend to feel a little disenfranchised as artists. Their notes to him typically contain a "This is what I do … " element."They think of themselves as being wholly Mormon. So when they want to express themselves, the ideal audience is somebody who knows who they are, who knows their vocabulary," Nelson said. "The first few years, (Mormon Artists) really did have a feel as a support group."Traditionally, the way to "feel" Mormon was for the artist to alter what they did, experiences that "were seldom satisfying because they weren't the experiences that were true to them," Nelson said. "If you were an abstract artist, what were you supposed to do?" Now the artist can say "If you knew me and knew who I am, the things I'm doing would make perfect sense" as a Mormon artist."Their own story has supplanted the 'immediately useful' " reference point for their art, Nelson said."Something is happening in our culture right now that is significant," Nelson said. "I've talked with hundreds of artists around the globe. They've noticed it too but they can't put their finger on it."The artists are looking for something that links their craft with their culture. "They're not saying, 'Wouldn't it be great if the Ensign would publish a string quartet in every issue,' " Nelson said, "They just want an outlet, and I think a community as well."A stroll through the group's Web site, mormonartistsgroup.com, shows the works the group has taken on do have a spiritual flavor, like the group's annual Christmas Card project. Projects listed on the Web site, like "Church drawings," a volume of drawings made during church meetings by Casey Jex Smith, and "Nephi's Colored Plates" are dead giveaways as works from within Mormon culture. The opera "Book of Gold," with music by Murray Boren and libretto by Nelson, is ever so slightly less obvious.The graphic element atop the Web site's home page is a simple flair of color that could be a playful stream of blue light or pleasantly colored smoke. The fact the simple graphic element is not tied to a traditionally identifiable genre of art perhaps gives respectful deference to the broad range of artistic contributions of such a diverse group.The Mormon Artists Group's current project features an etching titled "Atonement," printed by artist Walter Rane in his Oregon studio. Rane's works are also found in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City and have been exhibited in the Ensign and at the Museum of Church History and Art. The etching is limited to 75 copies and is printed on French paper with deckle edges."We do about three projects a year," Nelson said. "A lot of it is just virtual getting together."


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