Pictures of Jesus need more hot pink.
That’s what artist Michelle Franzoni Thorley told two senior missionaries looking at her painting currently on display in downtown Salt Lake City’s Church History Museum.
Her piece depicts Christ emerging from a floral arch covered in, yes, hot pink flowers. He’s surrounded by a desert landscape, with robes and skin “the color of the earth,” she writes in her artist’s statement. “This is how I see Jesus. … He will make a space for me, even in the desert of my life.”
Thorley’s piece, titled “Making Space for Us,” is one of 148 works selected from the 12th International Art Competition of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It’s also one of 11 purchase award winners — works the Church History Museum buys for its own collection. Ten additional artists won merit awards for their submissions.
This year’s theme, “All Are Alike Unto God,” refers to a verse from the faith’s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon, which reads “... [the Lord] denieth none that come unto him, Black and white, bond and free male and female… and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
The competition received more than 850 submissions from countries around the world, with selections made by a team of five jurors. The 148 selected works were created by artists across the globe — from Argentina, Armenia and Australia to Switzerland, Tonga and Ukraine. They also come in a variety of mediums like oil painting, woodworking, even crochet.
The exhibit runs through April 3, 2023, at the museum, 45 N. West Temple. Admission is free, and museum hours are Monday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Making space for artists of color
Thorley, who is a Utah-based artist with Mexican, African and European heritage, said her painting was inspired by the immigrants she worked with while serving a mission in Texas near the border.
Her original idea was of Christ creating an archway through the border wall, but that eventually evolved into a desert landscape representative of “the desert of our [lives].”
Thorley said it’s important for people of color to see themselves in diverse images of Christ. She incorporated her son’s skin tone and hair texture into her submission, she said, and picked flowers reflective of her daughters’ flower-based names.
She hopes viewers will consider how, if they saw a person of color walking down the street, they might be afraid of him.
“I want people to maybe think twice,” she explained, “and say, ‘Oh, that man looks like that image of Jesus Christ.’”
Thorley also said that while it’s important to see diversity depicted in artwork, making spaces for artists of color is just as necessary.
In the Church History Museum’s exhibit, for example, there are many images of Black and brown people, but they weren’t necessarily done by Black and brown artists.
“It’s not because there’s not talent. It’s not because there’s not desire. Then why is it? Is it just access to resources?” Thorley said. “I think if we pinpoint the problem, we can work together to find a solution so that more people of color can tell their own stories.”
Beauty is subjective
Artist Nnamdi Okonkwo, who served on the competition’s jury panel, also discussed the importance of diversity in artwork.
Okonkwo is from Nigeria and said it gave him “great joy” to see submissions from Africa and around the world.
The competition allows global church members’ artwork to get in front of a wide audience, he said, and it’s an opportunity for Utah Latter-day Saints “to be exposed to the rich cultural diversity that makes up the church.”
Going through the hundreds of submissions, however, was no small task. Okonkwo said each juror was sent over 1,000 images of the artworks and first made personal judgments of each piece.
From there, the panel narrowed the submissions down to 300 pieces that were shipped to Salt Lake City and seen in person. More than 150 of those were eventually cut throughout the final selection process.
Okonkwo said jurors considered factors such as aesthetic standards and how each piece reflected the theme.
It was also important to him, he said, that the selected works didn’t “scream religion.” While the final selections follow the theme, he said people of all backgrounds can enjoy the exhibit.
Okonkwo added that beauty is subjective and noted the jurors didn’t always agree with one another while judging the competition.
He recalled being “crushed” early in his career when his work wasn’t accepted into the first few art shows he entered.
“Even as I celebrate all the beautiful paintings here, my heart is still drawn to the people who didn’t make it,” Okonkwo said. “If we had [a] different set of jurors. … I’m sure that this year would look different.”