LDS women in art and culture

Credit: Source: State of Utah Fine Arts Collection
Credit: Source: BYU Museum of Art
Credit: Source: BYU Museum of Art

Faith and culture were common themes in the art and literature of LDS women. In the late 1800s women used poetry, painting and essays as ways of expressing their beliefs and opinions. Basing their style on classical works, women shaped Utah’s artistic history.

On March 4 in the Conference Center Little Theater, Amy Easton-Flake, Heather Belnap Jensen and Josh Probert presented “Women in Art and Culture” as part of the annual Church History Symposium. They focused on the influence that women had on art and literature inside Utah and the LDS faith.

Poetry to teach and delight

In 1872 LDS women founded the Woman’s Exponent to be the first journal, “owned by, controlled by and edited by Utah ladies,” said Sister Easton-Flake, a BYU assistant professor. Over 1800 poems were published during the 42-year run of the Woman’s Exponent said Sister Easton-Flake, who noted that 19th century women used poetry to present their views on current events, share family stories or express complex feelings.

The poems reflected common life themes for women, such as faith, raising families, women’s suffrage and death. The poems offer unique insights into the history of women in the Church and America. Poetry draws the reader into the author’s point of view and gives them a direct flow to their emotions, said Sister Easton-Flake. A poem titled “Hope, Daughters of Zion” written in 1870 encourages women to help move the work of the Lord forward. “There’s a great work to do — will you bear a brave part with the good and the true? Will you help redeem this fair earth from sin, and from its deep sorrows her frail children win?”

Pioneers in Paris

Between 1880-1920 LDS women traveled to France to become artists. Mary Teasdale, Alice Merrill Horne and Rose Hartwell were some of the women who mixed the European painting techniques with their Mormon faith, said Sister Jensen, a BYU associate professor. These women were large influences on the history of art for the LDS faith and for the state of Utah. Their portraits often reflected scenes of their upbringing and faith, which made them teachers and role models in Utah.

They also helped the art movement in Utah. Sister Horne purchased 37 collections of art that were taken to schools across the state because she felt children should have an understanding and appreciation of art, said Sister Jensen. She also brought artwork into LDS meetinghouses and was influential in passing the Art Bill of 1899 to, “advance the interest of fine arts” (Laws of Utah, 1899, chapter 29).

Domestic Advice Literature

Brother Probert, a historian who specializes in American material culture, spoke on home advice columns that were published in the Woman’s Exponent. These focused on how to decorate a home, suggesting that one’s setting was a reflection of one’s character. Leah Dunford Widtsoe wrote multiple essays on different parts of the home, such as wallpapers, colors or curtains, and claimed, “Our daily surroundings not only shape character, but make character.”

While the leaders of the Church were not directly involved in the publications, they were concerned with how the rest of the nation viewed Mormon communities. By improving the living conditions of homes in Utah, said Brother Probert, the hope was that others would see Latter-day Saints as a more genteel, sophisticated people.

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