The artist admits that "[f]or 15 years, I never talked about how I was raised or where I was raised and moved along with my life, bypassing a huge chunk of my formative years. Looking at this history now, I've started to move beyond the anger against the restricted and oppressive place that I felt within [the Mormon structure], and I feel like I'm looking at this history, particularly polygamy, and how contemporary Mormons want to separate themselves from that history."

Things get even more intriguing when it's revealed that Ellsworth, no longer a practicing Mormon, is an acknowledged lesbian in a committed, long-term marital relationship with Tania Katan, a writer, playwright, and actress currently performing in a one-woman show called Saving Tania's Privates. As a direct descendant of a Mormon prophet, Ellsworth is to be revered, but, notes Ellsworth, the fact that she's openly gay has worked against her as far as the Mormon Church is concerned. "BYU [Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City] invited me to be a visiting artist there but revoked the invitation when they found out I'm queer."


Tania Katan
The sister wives do the Electric Slide during a "Meanwhile, back at the ranch" performance in Sydney.
Tania Katan
The sister wives do the Electric Slide during a "Meanwhile, back at the ranch" performance in Sydney.

The homemade sunbonnets worn by 19th-century Mormon women, slowly trudging on foot as they pulled white oak handcarts through the inhospitable American wilderness, stand as the basic inspiration for Angela Ellsworth's "Seer Bonnets: A Continuing Offense," a sequel to related work first shown during "Underpinnings" at Lisa Sette Gallery in February 2009.

Her multimedia installation appeared in the main gallery of Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, a coveted spot by any standards. It incorporated 12 handmade fabric bonnets — each of which represented one of her great-great-grandfather's wives — encrusted with thousands of old-time pearl-headed corsage pins and embellished with mysterious monochromatic patterns. Each bonnet was mounted on a custom-made, unfinished white oak pedestal that references the carts of the artist's Mormon pioneer ancestors.

"The pedestals of white oak were a pain to get into Australia because wood is a real problem [as a carrier for insects]," says the artist. "I was committed to making them out of white oak, which is what early Mormon pioneers all made their handcarts out of. There's no white oak in Australia, so we had to go through fumigating all those things."

Ellsworth's seer bonnets are not only patterned after the traditional pioneer bonnets that many Mormon colonizers wore, but are also exactly like ones used for Mormon Corridor history walks, historical reenactments that Mormon youth still undertake in high school and junior high. "They pull handcarts for three days," she says. "You can't eat for 12 hours — it's sort of durational. My mom wouldn't let me do it. I must have incorporated that in my own work, since I wasn't allowed to do it as a kid."

Ellsworth's pearl-laden bonnets are prickly in every sense of the word; though beautifully decorated on the outside, their reverse sides wickedly bristle with sharp, shimmering pinpoints. A devoted team of local volunteers, working alongside the artist over a period of months in her Phoenix studio, helped push between 19,000 and 22,000 pins into each bonnet, depending on the length of their exaggerated ties, most of which were around 70 inches long. During pin-pushing sessions, bonnets were referred to by the names of Snow's wives. Pins used to embellish them were purchased from a floral supply distributor in Arizona.

According to Ellsworth, the circular designs on each bonnet allude to Smith's visionary seer stones. She sees them as spiritual portals for their female wearers to access their own visionary powers: "The circles [are] my idea of giving the women wearing the bonnets their own visions and the possibility of seeing and translating things."

Those arcane designs could just as easily reference Masonic symbols — commonly attributed in many religious quarters to the occult — found on LDS temples and incorporated into the church's iconographic lexicon to this day. Joseph Smith, together with many of his church members, was a Freemason and, early on, adopted the secret society's symbols for liturgical and architectural use.

Ellsworth's Australian sculptural display was amplified by a performance piece she created to accompany her static art objects. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (2010) featured her mini-army of sister wives, who made their inaugural appearance in Compounded (2009) at Sette's "Underpinnings" opening and, later, performed in Chicago. In Sydney, they appeared on a number of occasions in the same gallery as the seer bonnets. Dressed similarly to women members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway Mormon sect still practicing polygamy, Ellsworth's unmistakable crew of young women in athletic shoes were clad in ankle-length granny dresses in a rainbow of soft hues, sporting distinctive frontal hair poufs with single braids snaking down their backs.

The FLDS first came to national attention in 2008 with the arrest of polygamist FLDS leader Warren Jeffs (who specifically outlawed patterned fabric and the color red for his female followers). The artist told New Times that she initially ordered the plain Jane prairie dresses in 2008 directly from a fundraising FLDS website that has since closed, forcing her to find a local seamstress to replicate the dresses.

Looking as if they had just escaped from Little House on the Prairie, the Sydney sister wives silently entered the museum space en masse. Then, without any musical accompaniment, they would break into either the Electric Slide, a line dance first made popular in the U.S. during the '70s and still danced at family and coming-of-age events, or a couples' Sweetheart Dance. The performance crew included three ASU grad students, whose trips to the Biennale were paid for by the Herberger Institute. The three performed and also trained Australian volunteers for Ellsworth's performance. As a break between dances, the sister wives wandered through the gallery, sending unchoreographed, wordless communications to one another through touching both each other, themselves, and the architecture of the building.

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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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