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From the archives: Andy Warhol's Mormon sidekick

Published June 19, 2014 7:58 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note • French-born Isabelle Collin Dufresne, who kicked around with pop artist Andy Warhol in the '60s as Ultra Violet and eventually converted to Mormonism, died Saturday.

She was 78.

Her funeral was Wednesday in an LDS chapel on the east side of New York City.

Here is a 2004 Salt Lake Tribune story about Dufresne and Mormons living in the Big Apple:

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New York • Isabelle Dufresne left France for America in the freedom-loving 1960s and became the flamboyant Ultra Violet, Andy Warhol's sidekick in his pop universe of parties, drugs, orgies, art and filmmaking. To members of her Mormon singles ward, though, Ultra Violet is just "Sister Dufresne," the quiet woman with a slight French accent who teaches at the monthly Relief Society Enrichment Night.

Such an eccentric artist is not unusual in New York City LDS congregations, which boast daytime soap stars, Broadway set designers and Martha Stewart assistants, not to mention dozens of painters, musicians, writers, opera singers, top models and aspiring actors.

This is an LDS community unlike any other, said American history professor Richard Bushman of Columbia University.

"There is a powerful artistic presence and a powerful professional presence in the wards here," says Bushman, who lives with his wife, Claudia Bushman, in a book-lined apartment overlooking Riverside Park.

There is also a wide range of diversity. The city's LDS congregations include three English-speaking family wards, three singles wards, two Spanish-speaking wards, one Chinese branch, one deaf branch and a branch in Harlem.

That diversity is even more pronounced in the outlying areas of Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens and the Bronx, where pairs of dark-suited Mormon missionaries from Finland, Uzbekistan, England, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Russia can be seen seeking converts.

Thousands of members will come together this weekend to mark the completion of the faith's first temple in New York City.

Tonight, 1,200 Mormon youths will present an evening of song and dance at Radio City Music Hall. On Sunday, more than 15,000 members, including Dufresne, will be on hand when LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicates the temple on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

It is the 119th temple built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a "house of the Lord," where Mormons reaffirm the teachings of Jesus Christ through sacred rituals of marriage, baptism and "sealings," which unite families for eternity.

Unlike most LDS temples that sit on large chunks of property, surrounded by manicured gardens, this one is in four floors of a six-story building the LDS Church already owned on Columbus Avenue. The temple in Hong Kong is similarly situated.

The temple's proximity to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts attracted much media attention during a five-week open house. More than 54,000 people toured the Mormon holy site, including U.N. ambassadors, Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Charles Rangel and Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," who has become Hinckley's good friend.

"I do believe in miracles and the temple in Manhattan is the greatest miracle I have witnessed," Dufresne said this week at her penthouse apartment overlooking the Guggenheim Museum. "It gives us hope. It's a sign of comfort that the prophet is alive and he is coming here."

Mormon artists: LDS artists first started coming to New York City to study in the early 20th century. Mahonri Young, who sculpted the "Miracle of the Gulls," and Avard Fairbanks, whose works include monuments on Salt Lake City's Temple Square and Relief Society building, studied at the Art Students League. So did a dozen Mormon painters along with such notables as Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keefe and Roy Lichtenstein.

"For the most part, LDS artists in New York City embraced new techniques and returned home [to Utah], eager to translate modernity to the Mormon experience," writes Glen Nelson in a 2003 issue of The New York LDS Historian. "The majority of the artists received commissions for public buildings, memorials, church houses, temples and church art collections."

Those who studied here between the World Wars have become "the most revered of the church's artists," Nelson writes.

Today the church commissions only a few artists, but Mormons still come to New York to hone their skills. In an informal survey of the New York LDS stake in 1999, Bob and Julia Clayton identified 128 members who were either professional artists or full-time students majoring in one of the arts — 44 musicians, 30 in theater or film, 10 dancers, 12 writers, 23 in the visual arts and nine in a related field.

A few years ago, Nelson, who has lived and worked in New York City for 20 years, founded the Mormon Artists Group to promote their work and foster collaboration among them. The group has sponsored several art exhibits and publications, including Silent Notes Taken: Personal Essays by Mormon New Yorkers.

It was a Mormon artist who helped convert Ultra Violet to Mormonism. Her days in the art underground were taking a personal toll in the late 1970s. Weary of excess, she longed for peace.

She was playing in a rock band and was interviewed by journalist Carl Arrington, who happened to be Mormon. They talked about religion, especially her interest in a Heavenly Mother, and he said that Mormons believe in a divine partner for God the Father. Dufresne came to church and found a welcoming atmosphere.

"The Mormons were full of light," she said this week. "They seemed clean and happy. I was intrigued and impressed by them."

On top of that, the bishop was a painter named Mark Graham.

Dufresne was baptized in 1981 and has been active and faithful in the church ever since.

"Sometimes it's hard to go to church, but I am always happy that I went. There is always something that nourishes my soul," she said. "I love testimony meetings, especially when men cry. It's so real."

She has been through temples in London and Washington, D.C., and was impressed by their architecture and the ideas taught there, but the art disappointed her.

"It is ugly," she said. "The images repeat themselves over and over. It is supposed to be about creation, but it is just a copy of a copy of a copy."

Dufresne wishes the church would find Mormon artists to create something "new and original."

The New York City temple has some original art — a mural of a New York landscape, the River Jordan and a stained glass panel of Jesus Christ on the road to Emmaus. But the style of nearly every piece is realistic, rather than modern or impressionistic.

"The Holy Spirit does not paint like a photograph," Dufresne said.

Challenges of the city: Career demands, poverty and transportation are some of the biggest obstacles facing Mormons who attempt to live their religion in Manhattan.

Many Mormon professionals spend 60 to 80 hours a week at their jobs, leaving only Saturdays for family. Before now, the nearest temple was in Boston or Washington, D.C. An all-day trip up or down the coast was difficult. Now they can go to the temple and still take in a play or ballgame, said Joe Jensen, bishop of the Manhattan Second Ward.

And for those for whom a bus ride to another temple was too costly, the temple is but a metro token away.

Still, the city's demands color much of Mormon life here.

Richard and Claudia Bushman have experienced Mormon congregations in Cambridge, Mass., where they met and married, in Provo, Boston and Delaware, where they lived while working, studying and raising their six children.

Now Richard Bushman teaches at Columbia in what is by far the most urban setting they have known.

"There are not many places where you go to church in an elevator," he quipped. "My first high priest group leader had a ponytail."

Since arriving in 1989, the two have thrown themselves into Mormon projects. He has helped compile a history of Mormonism in the region and assembled a box of historical artifacts to seal into the temple's cornerstone.

Claudia Bushman has organized cultural events such as a Mormon concert at Carnegie Hall and a "Living Nativity" performed in the church's lobby during Christmas.

Two years ago, she was asked to chair a Bridge Building Committee to reduce antipathy with neighbors of the LDS Harlem Branch, which was established in 1997.

There are five storefront churches on the Harlem block where the church purchased land to build a large new chapel. Unlike most of his congregants, the branch president at the time was white and not from Harlem. His successor also is white and lives in Harlem.

Many longtime residents "saw us as carpetbaggers, coming in from outside and taking over the neighborhood with big building plans and money," Claudia Bushman said. "They felt overshadowed."

So her committee began making friends at police precincts, at school board and neighborhood meetings. They talked with clergy and politicians and friends and slowly began softening hearts.

"We are looking outward, increasing our footprints and influence in the city," Claudia Bushman said. "We want to be players rather than the people who come out of the woodwork to complain about how things are done."

That is a sentiment repeated by Mormons throughout the city.

"We've always been seen as outsiders," said Jensen. "The temple has clearly elevated the church's visibility. Given its prominent location, we expect that to continue."

pstack@sltrib.com