Angela Ellsworth on Being Gay, the Mormon Church, and Her Increasing Artistic Success

Editor's note: This story has been edited for clarity and accuracy since its initial publication.


Long before it was fashionable (or commercially profitable), interdisciplinary artist Angela Ellsworth must have consulted some seer stones before she decided to focus on her well-rooted Mormon ancestry as subject matter for her art.

Multimedia artist Angela Ellsworth brandishes the fake weapons used in last year's "Underpinnings" performance at Lisa Sette Gallery.
Jamie Peachey
Multimedia artist Angela Ellsworth brandishes the fake weapons used in last year's "Underpinnings" performance at Lisa Sette Gallery.
Sister wives stuff an elevator at the Museum of Contemporary Art during the Sydney Biennale.
Tania Katan
Sister wives stuff an elevator at the Museum of Contemporary Art during the Sydney Biennale.

Seer stones, for the uninitiated, are rocks with holes in them imbued, with special powers. Such stones were said to have been used by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as the Mormon Church) in the 1800s. Smith, a hardcore polygamist who eventually collected 35 wives, first used them to locate lost objects and hidden treasure (mostly without success). Later, he called upon their power to translate the cryptic Book of Mormon, the sacred scripture of Mormonism engraved on golden plates, from "reformed Egyptian" into understandable English.

In a case of life imitating art imitating life, several years after Ellsworth dug into making her early Mormon, polygamy-inspired work, Hollywood spawned not one but two television series based on just this subject — Big Love, a pithy HBO drama series about fictional modern-day practitioners of polygamy, long illegal in the U.S., and Sister Wives, a reality show that premièred on TLC September 26, featuring an actual fundamentalist Mormon salesman from Lehi, Utah, with four wives (one legal and three others not so much) and 13 kids.

But it won't take magical seer stones or television shows to assist even non-art lovers in fully appreciating Ellsworth's most recent body of work, which directly confronts issues of the lives of Mormon women pioneers, polygamy, forced communal domesticity, and a look at sister wives through a homo-social lens. Ellsworth went international with her latest creations at the 17th Biennale of Sydney, a by-invitation-only art exhibition held in Australia's capital city every two years. Now an entire world has come under the sway of solemn sister wives doing the Electric Slide in pastel prairie dresses, hairdos with frontal poufs, and strap-on braids.


A month-long love fest of art that took over almost every major cultural institution in Australia's largest city between May 12 and August 1 of this year, the sprawling 17th Biennale of Sydney, rather poetically titled "The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age," was a high-visibility showcase for art centered on issues of cultural diversity, plurality, and coping mechanisms in an increasingly homogenized world where distances of all types shrink daily. The main aim of this year's exhibition, according to the Biennale's English curator David Elliot, was to bring together different art forms from diverse, though not necessarily mainstream cultures on what he calls in an official Biennale document "the equal playing field of contemporary art, where no culture can assume superiority over any other."

Of 10 American artists, out of an overall total of 166 invited to show work there, three happened to be represented by Lisa Sette Gallery on Scottsdale's Marshall Way. Statistically speaking, that's a huge chunk of Arizona-connected artists, all of whom have ties to ASU Art Museum and the university, in general.

Mexican-born and -bred Enrique Chagoya, 57, no stranger to border culture on both sides of the proposed fence, whose irreverent work is part of Arizona State University Art Museum's permanent collection, and up-and-coming Claudio Dicochea, 29, also Mexican by birth and a recent recipient of a master of fine arts degree from ASU, are two of this holy ASUAM-related art trinity. The third member of the Biennale triad is 46-year-old Angela Ellsworth, currently an assistant professor of intermedia in ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, who works in drawing, performance, and sculptural installation.

By dint of their selection, all three artists have achieved star status back home, seemingly overnight — though, in reality, all have worked ceaselessly at their craft for years.

Given the idealized Biennale theme of cultural diversity, it's hard to escape the irony attached to these three artists having a major presence in Arizona. It's the ignoble birthplace of SB 1070, a divisive anti-immigration statute that may or may not be upheld, ultimately, by the U.S. Supreme Court, not to mention a bastion of legally sanctioned anti-gay-marriage sentiment instrumental in passing Proposition 8, California's one man/one woman marriage initiative, in 2008.


Though the work of Chagoya and Dicochea, which deals with issues of immigration, border culture, and racial mixing, is powerful, it's Ellsworth's art that seems to have unwittingly captured the attention of not only Biennale attendees, but local art mavens as well. "My work is all about ancestors," Ellsworth told a packed audience at ASUAM during a September panel discussion centered on the Biennale. "I've had issues with this history most of my life."

That history includes being raised Mormon. It also includes the fact that Ellsworth is the great-great-granddaughter of Lorenzo Snow, Mormon prophet, the fifth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and husband to 12 wives (two of whom were biological sisters). As a prophet in the Mormon Church, Snow was considered to be a visionary or seer capable of receiving divine revelations related to church doctrine. A contemporary of Joseph Smith, Lorenzo Snow was convicted and imprisoned on three counts of unlawful cohabitation in 1885 under the 1852 Edmonds Act, a federal statute outlawing polygamy. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ordered his release, saying that Snow's three offenses were actually one "continuing offense," a term pointedly referred to in the title of Ellsworth's sculptural installation for the Sydney Biennale.

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11 comments
Jack Swift
Jack Swift

Chad, there's nothing ignorant about what I said. What "falsehoods"? What are you, Joseph Smith, anyway -- you mean lies? As for ignorant, look in the mirror Mormon dude! Your church hates gays and opresses women, no matter with the Book of Mormon says. No wonder this artist has spent her life mocking it. You guys are worthy of mockery. And there's nothing racist about New Times letting this woman have a forum. She's an artist of international repute. You have progressive opinions about politics here, Chad, but you are wearing blinders when it comes to your faith. Also, get a grip, this is a review of an aratist's work.

aml55
aml55

At least get your facts right. This is absurd.

Joe
Joe

Russell Pearce is a Mormon and so is this weird bitch.Nothing unusual here.

Stew
Stew

And, like many other previous writers, this one fails to make the distinction between the mainstream Mormon Church and those offshoots who base their religions on the practice of polygamy. FYI, the true Mormon Church officially banned polygamy 120 years ago and had effectively ended the practice long before that. Don't you just love how it's ok to support gay rights, but not ok to allow other people their beliefs? There is enough room in the world for us all, you know.

ChadSnow
ChadSnow

Yo, what "facts" are you referring to? If you're going to make ignorant closed minded comments based on "facts", I'd like to see them. Have you read the Book of Mormon? I doubt it. But I'm not here to argue with you about religion - you are welcome to call me any time and I'd be glad to talk to you about it. I was only making a point that the New Times (and the AZ Republic for that matter) seem to have a perverse fixation with all things Mormon and have no qualms printing outright falsehoods about the Church.

Yo
Yo

Not a bigoted article. Facts are that Smith used silly woo woo to start a religion.

Its like Scientology + 100 years, or Christianity +2000 years. Silly stuff.

ChadSnow
ChadSnow

Jack Swift, you see absolutely nothing bigoted about this piece in the same way that Russell Pearce sees absolutely nothing bigoted about SB1070 - it's all in your perspective I guess. And make no mistake about it - this is not an "art review". How many art reviews have you read that go into the geneology and religious history of the artist?. It's another slam piece by the New TImes on what is the last acceptable bastion of intolerance in our society - Mormons (and Muslims). With all that is going on in Arizona right now, two cover stories in two weeks about gays and Mormons...and you call me sensitive!!! Lacey and Larkin are good guys and should know better.

JSDefender
JSDefender

Just a couple of historical points of clarification. While some believe Joseph Smith, Jr. used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon, in fact he used a Urim and Thummim, a device used by High Priests of ancient Israel to divine the will of God for Israel. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were the only first hand witnesses of how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. Their testimony was that he used a Urim and Thummin. The story that he used a seer stone, a device used for magical or occult divinations, came from those who never observed how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. For a more in depth explanation of this, read the pamphlet, How the Plates of the Book of Mormon were Translated, by Delbert Smith.

The other point I wish to clarify is that while it is the prevailing opinion that Joseph Smith, Jr. was a polygamist, it is not a fact. Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy is an online work containing over three volumes of evidence supporting the position that he did not teach or practice polygamy. Other people including Brigham Young and eight other Apostles introduced polygamy into the LDS Church. In addition, the evidence and testimonies presented by the Utah LDS Church in the Temple Lot Suit in the 1890s was not sufficient to determine in a court of law that Joseph Smith, Jr. taught or practiced polygamy.

You may obtain a copy of Delbert Smith’s pamphlet or read Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy and the Temple Lot Suit decision at RestorationBookstore.org.

Jack Swift
Jack Swift

Chad, sensitive, aren't you? I see noting remotely bigoted in this piece. Facts are facts, Chad. This artist is hardly the first to call BS on the Mormon Church. Particularly the fundamentalist sect of it. That Mormons despise gays is not exactly a news flash. You know what, Chad, artists are allowed to express themselves as they please, and the press is allowed to report on that. There are constitutional guarantees of this. Sorry that it offends your backward morality. Maybe you should be fitted for a bonnet.

As for you, Rex, maybe you're the one who should lay off the ganja. Those of us with clear heads, not infused with religious bias, had no problem figuring out this art review.

Rex Whitmer
Rex Whitmer

I don't think I have ever read a poorer biography. Whom ever wrote this make no attempt to make it coherant. It rambles and rambles and after spending half an hour trying to find the theme and point of the story I con only conclude that the writer (not corespondent) was likely on something. Along with Chad Snow, I can only conclude that the writer made a great effort to write about what he or she knew nothing of. As a suggested help I would advise abstaining from any form of mind altering substance for at least twelve hours before begining the task.

ChadSnow
ChadSnow

Interesting that New Times can be such a clear voice against racial bigotry but give such a regular platform for religious bigotry. As a lifelong Mormon, I found most of the information in this article about the Mormon church to be either patently false or mythical at best. A bitter ex-Mormon is probably not the best source of information about the Church...

 
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