VIDEO: Picturing Zion — Esther Candari at Restore | Faith Matters

VIDEO: Picturing Zion — Esther Candari at Restore | Faith Matters


With extensive experience creating and overseeing diverse works of art rooted in faith, Esther Candari speaks to the vitality of visual learning in informing our spiritual formation and deepest aspirations. In this Restore address, she attests to the interconnectivity of memory, aesthetics, visual literacy, and diversity in Gospel artwork. ———

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I feel like I should say, aloha, brothers and sisters? Aloha. Oh, that was pathetic. There’s 3,000 of you. Come on, one more time. Thank you. Thank you. Aloha, brothers and sisters. Aloha. Oh, much better. I am the odd one out visual artist in this wonderful array of teachers and researchers and writers. I’m really glad that I get to be here. I’m really grateful for Faith Matters recognizing and investing in the role that visual arts play in our spiritual life, in our personal lives, and in our collective religious lives as a community. What I want to talk about today is visual literacy, because something that I often have conversations with people about, as I’m managing the gallery, as I’m going to different things as an artist, is they don’t know how to talk about art. They don’t know how to talk about what art might be teaching them in a religious context. I want to give you some tools today so that you can do that for yourselves. You can do that in your callings. You can do that for your families. We spend so much time as a community investing in our theological literacy. We read books, we listen to podcasts.

The fact that you’re here is a testament to that. I just want to broaden that literacy a little bit more today with what I want to talk about. The liturgical… There we go, I’m pushing the wrong buttons. There we go. The liturgical practices of our church are a testament to the fact that God cares about visual learning. We look at the core learning environment, the most important learning environment in the church, which is the temple, and it is a deeply esthetic experience. We experience it in carefully crafted environments. It involves a lot of visuals, and it’s something that has continued to be refined by our living, latter-day prophets and leaders. That just, to me, is such a testament of how powerful it is to learn through what we are seeing in our day-to-day lives. When we think about the journey of our religious education, it most often starts with art. You think about what do children do in nursery. They’re usually looking at pictures, they’re coloring pages. Some of our earliest memories of learning about the scriptures, of learning about the gospel come from images that we’ve seen, like this one that I think all of us are familiar with.

As an artist, I also strongly believe that the pinnacle of our experience with spirituality comes through art as well. I don’t know about you, but some of the most profound moments of spirituality that I’ve had have come through either the arts in the broader sense, such as music, but also through experiencing paintings, sculptures, printmaking, all the different mediums. A specific example that I have was the first time I saw J. Kirk Richards, The Creation of Adam. This is the pairing to it, The Creation of Eve. And this idea of the creation of loving, heavenly parents and the children that we are of the divine really struck me standing in front of that painting. And it’s a moment that just crystallized in my experiences with the arts. And I think if all of you think deeply, you can remember a moment in your life that’s similar. If we dive a little bit into the sociological side of learning and teaching through art, when you teach through visuals, the retention of the concepts is exponentially higher. If someone were to be shown the word circle, they would have about a 10 % recall of that concept within 72 hours.

If you show them a picture of a circle, they’ll have about 65 % recall within 72 hours. So basically, art is a better way to teach things than writing. I’m sorry to all my writing friends out there, but it’s just true. Science has proved it. As Latter-day Saints, I think all of us grew up with the conversations of watch out for anti-Mormon content and the way that they mix truth and lie and how you have to be really careful with the written materials that you read to make sure that you’re building up your testimony and all of these things. But it’s funny. I never hear people talking about religious art in that way, that we immediately assume that because something has a religious theme to it, because something has spiritual overtones or expresses a story from sacred text, that it is somehow untouchable, that it’s 100 % correct just because part of it is true or part of it resonates with our spiritual experiences. And what I want to do today is have us question that just a little bit more. So to give an example of how we might absorb some incomplete or incorrect information through the things we’re looking at, I want to give this example.

So if I were to show this picture and say, This is a beautiful flower, that is a correct statement within a certain paradigm. But if I were to show you this and say, This is a beautiful flower, there are inherent limitations to the information I am giving you through this graphic. That’s something we have to consider that we’re both looking at individual images that we’re using as a community, but also the collective canon of images that we’re using as well, and that that collective information can have and can have errors in it if we aren’t critically considering and building and expanding on it. To pull another thing from the science world, there was an interesting study using AI to detect skin cancer. One of the things that the scientist found was after a while of training this AI and testing it on different images of skin cancer, is that it started detecting rulers as cancer. They were trying to figure out why. Why was this? Why is it assuming that a ruler equals cancer? When they went back and looked at the data that they trained the language learning model on, it was because most of the images that were of positive diagnoses of skin cancer also included a ruler because of the practices of the doctors who were taking these images.

And so what I want you to think about today are, what are the rulers that you have absorbed in your visual learning as a Latter-day Saint and as a disciple of Christ? What are we equating with something very important and life-changing just because it happens to be there? And how has it been built into our code? How can we rewrite that code? And most importantly, how can we rewrite it in a way that affects our personal stewardship? This is what you’re here for today. This message is not for your neighbor. This message isn’t for that person in your ward that you wish would do things differently. This message is for you. How can you change how you’re using art in your family scripture study? How can you change how you’re using it in a classroom? If you’re a teacher in your ward, if you’re a bishop, how can you change how it’s used within your stewardship? So think about that. What is your stewardship and how can you make adjustments within that? I’m going to ruin a primary song for you all. I’m going to make everybody stand up. Stand up, I know. Get some wiggles.

It’s afternoon, you just had lunch. You’re probably falling asleep. And we’re going to do head, shoulders, knees, and toes. Let’s run through those actions really quick. Head, shoulders, knees, and toes, knees and toes, knees and toes, knees and toes, and then eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. Okay, we’re doing some multisensory learning here. You guys can sit back down. You’re great. Thank you. A few things to think about with this memory learning structure that I’m going to give you is that it works best with figurative art, so art that has images of people in it. And that’s predominantly what we use as a culture. So it might not work perfectly in every circumstance, but it will work on the majority of images that you will most likely be exposed to. Again, we’re also not looking at, is art bad versus good? We’re asking, What are we learning and how does that affect our spiritual life? But most importantly, we’re asking, Are we truly pointing ourselves and each other and those who are seeking truth towards our savior. So first one, head. Who is in the image? Let’s take stock of the people that are present. What are the racial representations in that image?

What are the gender representations in that image? How does that communicate who is holy? How does that communicate who is near and dear to the divine? How does that communicate who is important? Something I have loved studying about the New Testament is looking at some of the well-known stories and asking myself where there are blanks in the way that they’re represented. For example, this Nativity scene. Oftentimes, we see a small group of older male shepherds. But if you look at the cultural context, most likely there would have been multigenerational groups and possibly, and probably females as well. It would have been entire families. This was a family trade. It would have been an entire family group coming to visit the savior at his birth. I went to graduate school in the south, in the Bible Belt at a Southern Baptist school, which is a really wonderful experience. It was always a little difficult as a Latter-day Saint, when these were my coworkers in the department I worked for, when they’d come to me and say, Doesn’t your church hate Black people? And as an artist, I couldn’t give them art that reflected my personal belief and the true doctrine that Black bodies are valuable.

And that was hard for me. And that’s something that I’m working to change as an artist because I want to be able to testify of that to them, to testify of those restored truths that I hold dear through the medium that I hold dear. Okay. Next, shoulders. Who’s leading in the image? What does that say about authority? What does that say about gender and the ability to receive revelation? What does that say about how we are serving and leading in our communities? This is one of my favorite comparisons to you looking at these images of Deborah. They’re both beautiful images. I love them in and of themselves as art objects. But if we ask ourselves, What is the narrative around female leadership and its potential within our communities? When you compare these images. Alternately, knees, looking at who is serving. Now, you can take this two ways. You can take it one way in that we should all be seeking servant leadership to model the type of leadership that Christ did. But alternately, you can also look at it as, Who is subservient? And what does that say about power dynamics? What does that say about how we should have relationships in our community?

For example, we have the image on the right here. Oftentimes, when you look at images of historical scripture scenes, the women are in the background serving. And while there might be some cultural context that supports that, if those are the only images that our children are seeing, if those are the only images that investigators to the church are seeing, what does that say about the role of women in our religious environments? What does that say about the role of women in moments when theology is being discussed, when important spiritual events are happening? Toes. Who is this space made for? Ask yourself, if you were to be transplanted into this image, would you feel like you belong… I hit the little gills. That’s one of my favorite examples. It’s just I’m sorry if anybody knows the artist to this. I’m sure they’re a great person, but it’s a moment from church history, and we have to pause and appreciate this. If we were standing, how would you feel? Would you feel like you fit in? Would you feel like you stood out? How might someone from a different background, how about someone of a different race or a different gender or different socioeconomic status?

Could they relate to the image? Could they slip into that scene and find welcome in that scene? Alternately, it’s not always bad to find discomfort because there is learning in both comfort and discomfort. I wanted to look at a comparison here between these two images. The first one is by Julie Yim, and it’s a Chinese interpretation of the plan of salvation. As someone with a Chinese heritage, the first time I saw this, it was a really meaningful experience because it used a lot of symbols that felt familiar to me, that related to a lot of things in my personal life and family history. This caravagio on the other side would have felt familiar to the people of the time. It doesn’t feel familiar to me, but as I’ve studied it in my professional life, it’s taught me a lot about the way that people perceive religion at that time, and it’s challenged me to learn things that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Next, eyes. What’s your view? Look around at the art in your life. Look at your living spaces. Look at the stuff on your social media. What artwork do you have and what is it saying to the people around you?

Ears. How have you heard this story? And how does that affect the way that you perceive it and think that it should be told? Are your assumptions being challenged by what you’re seeing? A great example is Joseph Smith translating the gold plates. We’ve all seen the image of the plates out on the table with Oliver Calgary there riding. It’s a beautiful image, but it has no historical backing to it. Records show that Joseph Smith often translated it with his head in a hat, which is a very odd thing and an uncomfortable thing for us to address as a culture sometimes. But art is such a great way to address that and to question the ways that we’ve written into our history or rewritten our history. Now, what do we project? If I were to show you this image, how would you describe it? I need you just a second to think about that. A lot of you probably immediately looked at this image and assumed, Oh, those are Lamanites at some point in the Book of Mormon. Well, this is actually an illustration of Captain Moronai and some of his soldiers by James What does that say about our associations with holiness and indigeneity?

What does that say about our associations with race and importance and righteousness? Think about that. Before we close up, I wanted to show a short clip. I’ve been working on this project. It’s a compilation of diverse religious images that can be used in religious education, whether it’s a classroom or your family. I sat down with Rachel Bonner a few weeks ago and asked her and her kids to describe why having diverse imagery matters to them. Let’s take a look at that.

Because if you just do music or stuff or songs, it can picture how it looks like in your head, but art actually shows you how it might look like. You’re like, Oh, that’s cool. There are.

People like me in.

That time or something that they looked up to God too. And it’s pretty cool just seeing a person like me just like, Mom, we’re talking about. I don’t think it’s really there for just one type of a type of person. I guess it’ll be like painting. I think it’s fair for the whole world to be shopping on a piece of paper or a picture at the museum.

Yeah, and I agree because God made all of us. You look around in all parts of the world, they’re all God’s children. And so we need to show that. We’re a worldwide Church. We need to show all of God’s children. After our son passed away recently, we were given lots of books about what happens after life and showing angels that are there in heaven, they’re happy and stuff. And it’s all my crib. And that’s not my little boy. My little boy doesn’t have white skin. And so we need to show that there are angels in heaven. There are millions of angels that are not white. They have lots of varying degrees of brown skin or whatever it is, they have different skin colors than just white. And I think that’s important because when we think about what’s going to happen after this life, that’s what we want to be in heaven. We want to be with our heavenly parents and our savior. But if we only see.

If my.

Children only see white people there, they might think, Wait, is there a place for me in heaven? Yes, there is. There is a place. So we need to show that because I think that’s what our family and parents want. They do want it. They want every single one of their children to come back to them. But if we’re being an obstacle and just something so simple as what we’re drawing, we can easily fix that.

The last one, knows. We’ve talked about some things that probably feel a little bit heavy that feel personal. I want you to take a minute to assess your feelings. Recognize and name any discomfort that you have. Breathe out. Breathe in again. What can you do about it? Breathe out. Breathe in. Make a commitment to do something within your stewardship. Breathe out and open your eyes. Truly open your eyes to what we are seeing, what we are saying as a community. May we all do better to teach and to preach through all that we do that we are all children of God, all beloved and saved by the redeemer of the world.



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