Latter-day lampooner helps Mormons laugh at themselves
North Salt Lake • Matt Page hovers over his computer screen, playing with iconic Mormon images.
Page takes a familiar photo of Brigham Young and covers the beard in actual bees. He plugs a white iPod into LDS founder Joseph Smith's ear. He places the name Sheri Dew, a former counselor in the General LDS Relief Presidency, on a green bottle of Mountain Dew.
The North Salt Lake graphic artist freely draws on Mormon paintings, products, logos or figures to startle viewers and comment on contemporary issues related to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His work elicits chuckles, but also challenges church members in how they view themselves.
It's all in fun, Page insists to any who see lurking sacrilege. "I am not mocking my faith. I just feel differently about it."
Many others share his ironic view of Mormonism and pop culture.
"Matt Page is a sheer genius," says Steve Evans, one of the founders of bycommonconsent.com, a popular Mormon blog that has featured Page's art for more than a year. "He's irreverent, artistic and insightful."
Evans compares Page's work to the early drawings of Calvin Grondahl, the Ogden Standard-Examiner cartoonist who published a popular series of Mormon cartoon books in the 1970s and '80s.
Grondahl and Page, Evans says, "share a capacity to provide satire without distancing themselves from the community."
Such humor helps Latter-day Saints approach even some of their most common cultural practices and ideas even Jesus Christ from a fresh perspective.
Mormons preach "a gospel free of sacred icons, we say our chapels have no crucifixes because we don't worship such symbols," says Evans, a Mormon lawyer in Seattle. "And yet we revere standardized Christ art like the Christus or the ubiquitous Del Parson portraits."
The LDS faithful need to remember, he says, "that the Jesus we follow defies these preset forms."
And, Evans adds, Mormons need to retain an ability to laugh at themselves.
That never has been a problem for Matt Page.
Growing up funny
Page was drawing "quirky stuff" as early as the third grade, says Brad Kramer, a friend since the two attended the same Salt Lake City elementary school.
All through public school, Page was known as being "one of the funniest kids in school, sometimes uncomfortably so," says Kramer, in a doctoral program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "As a teenager, Matt was a little bit more of a provocateur but, when it came down to it, he was still a good Mormon kid."
From 1998 to 2000, Page served a full-time LDS mission in Johannesburg, South Africa, where, he quips, he was the only Mormon elder who wasn't robbed or carjacked.
When he returned to Utah, Page studied art at Salt Lake Community College and later at the University of Utah, but family responsibilities eventually forced him to drop out.
He had met his Jamaican wife, Annabelle, at a meeting of the Genesis Group, a support group for black Mormons, and they soon had three kids. Annabelle Page works in a law office, so it made sense for Page to stay home and care for their youngest child.
The arrangement seemed to suit the artist.
In the family's guest bedroom, Page's main canvas became a computer, his brush became a mouse, and his palette, software programs such as Photoshop. He surrounded himself with plastic action figures from comic books, science fiction and TV's "Star Trek."
A few years ago, Page suffered from serious depression. He stopped going to church for some months. Then he launched a blog, My Religious Blog (at myregisblog.com), to showcase some of the Mormon parodies he had created. The effort provided an emotional and spiritual release and helped him find his way back into the fold.
"It was a different way for me to approach my faith than what I had done in the past," he says. "I can enjoy a reference to or a good-natured joke about the movie 'Three Men and a Baby' the same way I can enjoy a reference to or a good-natured joke about the movie 'Mountain of the Lord.' There's not a big difference to me."
Page adds: "Faith, pop culture and science fiction. I don't have to separate them anymore."
An Internet following
It didn't take long for Page's blog, subtitled "The Substandard Works of a Utah Mormon," to develop a small, but loyal online following.
Still, Kramer felt his old friend could do better.
So Kramer, by then a regular blogger at bycommonconsent, persuaded the founders to let Page display his art on their much-larger site.
The graphic artist's first piece appeared in April 2009, accompanying one of Evans' essays. By that summer, Page had a monthly feature called "The Illustrated Matsby."
It was an instant hit.
One of his images, "Spirit World Cup," put an Angel Moroni and his trusty trumpet squarely in the middle of South African soccer fans blowing their vuvuzelas during the 2010 global soccer competition.
The image went viral.
That was no accident, Kramer says. Page's work would appeal to a new generation of Mormons, young people who go to church and also enjoy Jon Stewart's brand of satire.
Lots of churchgoing Latter-day Saints want to hang a drawing of the temple on their walls, for example, but many don't want the traditional reproduction. How about an Andy Warhol-like temple, cloaked in modern colors, with the saying "Holiness to the Lord" in bold red?
Page's perspective doesn't amuse all Mormons, of course, and some anti-Mormons see it as helping their cause.
Drawing the line
When some viewers first encounter Page's work, they find it discomforting, Kramer acknowledges, but that's not all bad.
"He offers brilliant flashes of insight about our shared cultural neuroses," Kramer says. "If Matt carried it one step further, it would offend a lot of people, but he doesn't. He knows how to rein himself in."
The artist has asked several anti-Mormon or ex-Mormon sites to quit linking to his site. He has no desire to see his art used against his church.
"Matt's work still is devotional in its own way because it takes Mormonism seriously," Kramer says. "It shows that Mormonism is something he values."
In fact, his art is an expression of his faith.
Page knows that his church, or any church, expects adherents to believe the unbelievable. His art helps him feel more comfortable about that.
He believes, he says, the Book of Mormon claim that there are three American Indians who have been alive for hundreds of years and "may or may not wander around helping people out."
"That's weird, right?" Page says. "But I really do believe it. It's who I am."
He says there are many other Mormons in the world, and especially online, who believe the same weird stories, "so we can probably share a laugh about it."
The art of faith a yearlong series
P Throughout 2011, The Salt Lake Tribune will feature a monthly series about religious art and artisans. Today: Matt Page, a North Salt Lake graphic artist and satirist.
To see more of his work, go to:
To view previous stories in the series, go to http://www.sltrib.com