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The art show of a Brigham Young University student became more participatory than expected last week.
Part of a photography exhibit by Katie Marie Liechty was stolen sometime between July 16, when the BYU senior put up the display, and July 20.
The swiped piece focused on Heavenly Mother, part of a series of photos examining topics from "Mormon Doctrine," the 1958 encyclopedia of LDS teachings by the late Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie.
The show features a series of film-developed photos exploring topics in McConkie's landmark volume from card playing and "hot drinks" to chastity and equality, including quotes from the apostle and black-and-white pictures. For card playing, a photo of tiny cards. For hot drinks (a referral to the Mormon health code forbidding tea and coffee), a picture of cans of Coke and Fresca. For chastity, an image of a chunk of frozen chicken.
Liechty's portrayal of Heavenly Mother was a piece of darkroom paper with no negative no image. When she walked past her exhibit a few days after she put it up, the photo and quote for Heavenly Mother were missing.
"I was shocked," she said. "It was really sad and a little disheartening to see a piece go."
In its place, Liechty left a note, which was later removed as well: "In this space, there was the title card for 'Heavenly Mother,' " she wrote. "Unfortunately, someone has taken it from the wall."
The topic of a Mother in Heaven has seen a resurgence of interest, especially among LDS feminists and those calling for more transparency in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Heavenly Mother is not mentioned in Mormon scripture, but her existence has been acknowledged by LDS prophets and is celebrated in the faith's hymns.
McConkie's book isn't without controversy, either.
His encyclopedia of LDS teachings stands as one of the most popular and influential Mormon books of the 20th century. It was at once widely popular and deeply troubling. Top LDS leaders lamented a number of passages and even forced McConkie to revise some entries.
The volume went out of print in 2010.
"I wanted to keep it vague out of respect," Liechty said of her treatment of Heavenly Mother. "I included Mother in Heaven in my project because we don't talk about it much in church. For me, the knowledge of having a Heavenly Mother strengthens my faith in having a Heavenly Father."
Above the photo portraying Heavenly Mother hung this McConkie quote: "Implicit in the Christian verity that all men are the spirit children of an eternal father is the usually unspoken truth that they are also the offspring of an eternal mother." Both the photo and quote were removed by an unknown person.
Liechty, who has submitted an incident report to campus police, regrets the vandalism, but noted it actually reinforces one of the points of her exhibit.
"It's sad that I may never see that piece again," she said, "but having that blank space on the wall, and realizing where that piece was, shows that this is a topic that is hard to talk about."
Paul Adams, her faculty adviser and head of BYU's photography department, said the piece was not removed by the faculty or university administrators. Liechty's work was reviewed by him and his colleagues to "make sure that her motivations were pure," but he didn't see it as "terribly challenging or controversial."
While he has seen scribbles on art shows before, Adams said this is the first time he's seen a piece removed from the gallery.
"I don't know why somebody would've taken it," Adams said.
The exhibit is in the Harris Fine Arts Center on BYU's Provo campus, where student art is displayed regularly without security.
The perpetrator is "either someone who just really felt strongly against putting a portrayal of Heavenly Mother on the wall," Liechty said, "or thought it was disrespectful."
She joked that it could be the case that a passer-by loved the piece so much that he or she simply wanted it.
'My intent," she said, "was for individuals to re-evaluate and hopefully strengthen their faith."
Liechty, who graduates in August, said she grew up in a "strict, religious home" in which principles from "Mormon Doctrine" were enforced even if her parents didn't do so explicitly from the book.
Liechty's portrayal of chastity is the McConkie line, "Better dead clean than alive unclean" paired with a photo of a piece of frozen chicken.
"It's a sterile, clean piece of meat but it's frozen and dead," Liechty said. "It's a slab of meat ... but it's clean."
The BYU student has displayed the exhibit two times before now and has never had anything removed.
Beside the display is a journal where viewers can voice their impressions a gesture, Liechty said, intended for grievances.
"Dear Katie," wrote one viewer, "I appreciate your earnestness. However, I wish that we could allow Elder McConkie, a powerful servant of the Lord in spite of his unfounded certainty about so many folk doctrines, to rest in peace along with his book. Rather than vituperation, 'Mormon Doctrine' deserves to be allowed to fade into oblivion. A benign neglect of it will ensure this fate."
Wrote another: "Leave Elder McConkie alone. ... He was opinionated, but aren't we all. However, 'Mormon Doctrine' is filled mostly with great insights. It's not fair to paint the work in a negative light because of some strong opinions."
The show, "Mormon Doctrine" is available for viewing at the Harris Fine Arts Center through August.