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Faith + Works: Ashlee Whitaker On Art as a Spiritual Text

Ashlee Whitaker, curator of religious art at BYU’s Museum of Art, shared experiences where art and faith meet

There was a quiet excitement in the Madsen Recital Hall of the Harris Fine Arts Center as the audience waited for the last Faith + Works lecture of the academic year; and this time they would get to hear from the curator of religious art at BYU’s Museum of Art. The carillon struck eleven, sending the first few bars of “Come, Come, Ye Saints” echoing through the air. An unassuming-looking woman ascended the stage. Looking as comfortable as if she were in her own living room, Ashlee Whitaker smiled, thanked everyone for coming and began.

Art as a Spiritual Experience

Ashlee Whitaker began her Faith + Works lecture by describing her experiences the first time she saw Michelangelo’s sculpture “Pieta” in Italy and Van Gogh’s painting “Wheatfield With Crows” at a traveling exhibition in Los Angeles. She was thrilled and moved by the way these pieces made her feel and how they connected with her, even as a youth. Because of these experiences, Whitaker formed a belief that “art can be a language of the spirit through which we can access profound spiritual awareness and empathy through the human experience.”

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“Museums have been my favorite classrooms for a long time,” Whitaker said. “There is nothing quite like the experience of seeing a work of art in real time and space.” She then connected this experience of seeing art with spiritual experiences.

“This kind of spiritual undertone to art I don’t think is necessarily limited to artworks that have a religious background or religious intent,” she continued.

Whitaker pointed out that not all art should be or is intended to be interpreted spiritually. But she also observed that the purposes for and results of spiritual and artistic expression have much in common, saying, “Among the many definitions of art, we might say that art is human expression … [or] a conduit into learning” about what other people value, experience and feel as individuals.

“In that respect,” said Whitaker, “I feel like when we step into the experience of another in empathy we are in a sense on sacred ground.” She continued to say that the key to this experience was not simply in looking at art, but in truly seeing it. She explained that truly seeing art requires time, effort and a willingness to ponder the image as a sacred text.

Diverse Mediums and Styles of Religious Art

Whitaker spoke on an exhibit held in the Museum of Art in 2017, “The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture.” In choosing art for the exhibit, Whitaker said, “The works of art were intentionally in a variety of styles and media, running a whole range of what could be seen as the contemporary spectrum of Latter-day Saint visual production.” It was her hope that new or unexpected styles would lead viewers, step by step, to truly see the art and its possible messages.

Whitaker shared six experiences with various viewers of the exhibit, illustrating how the different pieces resonated with visitors in unique ways: a woman feeling seen because of the inclusion of Heavenly Mother in a painting about the creation; an athlete comforted in battling mental illness by a piece about Job; a pair of students who were part of the LGBTQ+ community on campus feeling that there was room for diversity in the Church because of a piece about the children of Israel; one student comforted in their fight against chronic illness by a painting of Adam and Eve; another bolstered in their faith by a depiction of the tree of life; and yet another feeling assured of God’s nearness by a sculpture in the exhibit. Each of these unique pieces spoke directly to the souls of those mentioned, granting a spiritual and emotional experience to each of them.
Whitaker shared six experiences with various viewers of the exhibit, illustrating how the different pieces resonated with visitors in unique ways.

Differing Faith Traditions Strengthening Our Own Devotion

Whitaker also touched on how interacting with religious art of other traditions can strengthen our own faith as we openly seek to learn and also build bridges of shared belief.

She explained how she had personally engaged in this practice, saying, “In 2014 I was able to curate the exhibition ‘Loving Devotion: Visions of Vishnu.’ It was based on the Newark Museum’s collection of Hindu devotional art. And it focused on a type of devotion called ‘bhakti,’ a very charismatic form of devotion to deity that involved sight, sound, all the senses. And it focused on the god Vishnu in all of its incarnations.” Whitaker explained that bhakti was based on the belief that “God is everything, and that God presents himself to humankind in different manifestations in order to meet specific needs.”

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Whitaker spoke of the process of preparing this exhibit for the typical patron at the Museum of Art. She recounted, “As I sat and started looking at these complex and beautiful images, I found myself really really grappling to find meaningful access points for our audience.”

To find and form connections between this style of devotional art and Latter-day Saint faith traditions, Whitaker worked with “practitioners, leaders, and scholars of both the Hindu and Hare Krishna communities here in Utah as well as in India.”

As Whitaker studied the traditions and sacred texts related to the exhibit, she said that her own devotion to God deepened. “I found in their heartfelt, marvelous, rich approach to loving God I found myself wanting,” Whitaker said. “I found myself wanting to be more ardent about my relationship with the Divine.”

She added that engaging with others’ ideas about God changed how she thought about the nature and power of Deity. “These images reminded me over and over again that God can do any and all things. He has many hands, each holding different aspects of what His power can do for me, that I can and should never limit what the Divine wants to do for me, what He wants to do for all of His children.”

Whitaker also shared how even familiar works of art can contain new and rich meanings as we approach them with new eyes, time after time. “Never underestimate art’s ability to carry new meanings,” she urged.

Whitaker ended her thoughts with a challenge for the audience to reframe how they think about and interact with art, whether they consider themselves artists or not. “In closing,” Whitaker concluded, “I … invite all of us to take time to really see works of art, to really take opportunities to access our faith [and] to learn of [those] deeper sacred principles about the experiences of others through art.”