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What can't be expressed in words is often said without them, through art.
That's what Katie West Payne's exhibit at Brigham Young University attempts to do with a Mormon concept that can be expressed in words, but often isn't that of a Heavenly Mother.
"No one has ever said we couldn't talk about her," said Payne, who researched for two years the LDS teaching of a female companion to a Heavenly Father to prepare for her show, "A Space for the Contemplation of a Sacred Silence."
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the Mormon notion of a Mother in Heaven, especially given the rise of LDS feminism and an increased focus from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on transparency in its teachings and history.
While her existence is linked to Mormon beliefs about eternal marriage LDS prophets acknowledge her and beloved hymns celebrate her a Mother in Heaven is not explicitly mentioned in Mormon scripture.
Payne's art show does not depict the personage of a feminine deity, but is inspired by a variety of literature.
It is a massive labyrinth made of 200 feet of white fabric, seven feet tall. Labyrinths are commonly associated with goddesses in Greek mythology, Payne explains. On the panels of white fabric, she spent more than 1,000 hours hand-embroidering 19 symbols and words about Mother in Heaven: a tree, representing her as wisdom; a trinity knot, representing the godhead; the famous Utah symbol of a beehive, to portray Heavenly Mother as the queen bee; and a bird from "Are You My Mother?" a children's book by P.D. Eastman.
Besides the labor- and research-intensive tasks for the project, Payne was a bit jittery about her subject matter. "I couldn't get up the nerve for a really long time to show work about Heavenly Mother," she said. "There's a whole taboo that we don't talk about her because she's sacred."
Payne learned about Margaret Toscano, a Mormon feminist who was excommunicated, in part for writing about the topic in the 1990s.
"It's nerve-racking," Payne said, "to come out in support of learning about Heavenly Mother, I guess."
But the project met little to no opposition from BYU, said Brian Christensen, Payne's adviser and associate professor of 3-D art. The art department is "fairly autonomous in exhibitions within the department," Christensen said, and it hasn't seen a complaint yet.
"[Payne] is not trying to be controversial," he said. "She's trying to investigate within the guidelines of the LDS Church in regard to doctrine."
Still, Christensen acknowledged a certain "nervousness" about a topic reverenced by so many Mormons. Payne is not taking issue with LDS teachings, he said, which would cause concerns at a church-owned university.
"What we were finding is that she was handling the subject matter with sensitivity. ... She's asking honest questions."
Payne's project part of her thesis for a master of fine arts degree from BYU is on exhibit until Monday. A ceremony is set for Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. in Gallery 303 at the Harris Fine Arts Center on BYU's Provo campus.
Payne scheduled the exhibit to run at the same time as the BYU Women's Conference, which draws thousands, in hopes that women would "come in and see it and leave with some questions and do a little bit of research, and that they could talk about her more in church and in our religion."
God isn't "just male" anymore for Payne, but rather a couple. "I don't believe that God could be the father without having his wife there as well."
From LDS hymn 'O My Father'
In the heav'ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I've a mother there.
Eliza R. Snow