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The cross is a compelling image — even for Mormon artists.

That was among the observations made by Glen Nelson, one of the jurors in the 10th International LDS Art Competition.

"For me, this was one of the biggest surprises of the competition experience," writes Nelson, a New York City writer and director of the Mormon Artists Group. "We have been told, as members of the church, that the crucifix is not a primary symbol of Mormonism, and indeed it is practically absent from our graphic identity."

Yet many paintings, photographs and other submissions in the contest ­— whose theme was "Tell Me the Stories of Jesus" — focused on that ubiquitous symbol of Christianity.

"I expected to see that they came from countries with predominantly Catholic populations [like Latin America and the Philippines]," Nelson writes in an opinion piece for the artists group. "But I was mistaken. Crucifixion artworks seemed to be coming from everywhere."

Why, he wonders, are LDS artists drawn to this image of pain and suffering, especially at this time?

Whatever the impetus, Nelson writes, these artistic depictions "are beautiful and powerful. They work. ... I didn't find them, in any way, inappropriate because of their subject matter."

Nelson is "curious to see if this is a trend and if so, how it spreads to other areas of Mormon character."

He also notes how LDS artists wrestle with how best to depict Jesus Christ, whom Mormons view as their savior.

"There is a battle within the church regarding what Jesus should look like in its sanctioned art," Nelson writes. "I suspect that if every one of our 15 million members had a way to describe the image of Jesus they see in their mind's eye, there would be no consensus."

So how does an artist create an image adequate to the faith of so many?

"Tricky question," Nelson concludes, "not a trick question."

In the exhibition, hanging currently in the newly renovated Church History Museum in downtown Salt Lake City, there's a painting "by a Cambodian artist of Jesus looking quite like Buddha, for example," he writes, "just as there have been submissions in previous competitions from Latin America of Jesuses who look Hispanic, and for that matter, Jesuses who are so pale as to look practically Nordic."

Beyond race, though, what about artistic style and tone? Should a contemporary artist try to look "like an Old Master? (Is it Carl Bloch or bust?)," Nelson wonders. "Is it OK to draw a cartoon with Jesus in it? Can Jesus be updated and depicted in modern dress?"

Some answers are showcased in the exhibit and, he says, they display "an expansive range of approaches."

Peggy Fletcher Stack