Visual Arts

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.

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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Kathleen Vanesian