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From the archives: Andy Warhol’s Mormon sidekick

First Published      Last Updated Jun 19 2014 07:59 am

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"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.

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