This entry is cross-posted at Self-Portrait As.
I recently edited issue 166 of SUNSTONE magazine, aka “the motherhood issue.” I am proud and happy to announce that it is SUNSTONE’s most popular and best-selling issue. It has far outstripped all other issues in terms of people ordering individual copies, while other people (including my own father) who let their subscription lapse have renewed and asked that their resubscription start with issue 166.
I worked very hard on this project and am very proud of the contents, which include personal essays on topics like miscarriage and post-partum depression as well as scholarly articles on Mormon midrash and Mother in Heaven. A somewhat curmudgeonly SUNSTONE constituent commented to the office staff that “the essays in it were truly inspiring, instead of just whining as sometimes is the case at the symposia.” And someone sent in an anonymous note on three-by-five cards saying, “Artist Galen [Dara], the cover front & back of the March 2012 edition (#166) of SUNSTONE is worth the price of a three-year subscription CONGRATULATIONS!”
I admit I am in love with the art, which I think is not just beautiful but important. Shortly after editor Stephen Carter asked me to do the issue, I started thinking about the cover. I could not execute it myself, but I knew what I wanted, and I knew who I wanted to do it. I have been a fan of Galen Dara‘s work since long before I learned that her mom was my mom’s visiting teacher or that our grandparents were good friends in Tucson back in the day.
Anyway, I knew that I wanted a gender-bending version of Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine Chapel depicting the creation of Adam. As I wrote in my introduction to the issue,
Michelangelo’s depiction of God animating Adam with a single touch of his divine finger is one of the most famous images in all of art. In the 500 years since the fresco was completed, it has been reproduced, reinterpreted, and even satirized. But as far as I am aware, it has never before been re-imagined as a way to depict the power of the Goddess. I’ve been told of a belief in Gnostic circles that the Goddess is the figure under God’s left arm–but that figure is still off to the side, still secondary. Our depiction here puts the divine feminine and the human feminine–as well as the relationship between them–front and center. The image was created as a celebration of the unique, nourishing, and powerful doctrine of Heavenly Mother. Mormonism is one of the only places in Christianity where such an image could find resonance.
I want to make a couple of things clear: one, I didn’t go rogue on this; I got permission to have a depiction of a pretty robust Heavenly Mother animating a naked and bosomy Eve before Galen and I got started. Two, even still, I had to fight for it–and I did fight for it. Michelangelo’s original image is very horizontal, and SUNSTONE needed a vertical image. There was a point where we were playing with a close-up image of Heavenly Mother lifting up the chin of a forlorn Eve holding an apple, and I put my foot down. Many email discussions ensued with different people, and some different versions. In one, God the Mother and Eve occupied the same position as in Michelangelo’s painting, but Mother God was handing Eve an apple. I wrote,
I still don’t like it, and here’s why: having God the Mother give Eve the apple puts both of them in the position of following patriarchy’s script. It turns Heavenly Mother into the serpent. And maybe she is…. But before we change the story that way, and explore what it means for a feminine deity to be the source of human wisdom (in defiance of her husband’s commands), we need to first establish and legitimate both these female characters as powerful, in their own right, through their own beings and essences.
In Michelangelo’s painting, God and Adam offer nothing but power. They don’t need props, because their power is self-evident, thorough, and innate. They express their power and identity merely by showing up.
If God the Mother and Eve have to express their power and identity through the possession and use of props, they are secondary and subordinate to male gods and human beings.
It might not be as fun as changing a lot of elements, but the most subversive and provocative thing we can do is to show God the Mother as the equal, in every way, of God the Father (except maybe fierceness–he does look pretty mean). She has just as much power to animate human beings with a mere touch of her finger as her male counterpart does. She has just as much interest in human life. She recognizes human women as an expression of her divinity and power, and she doesn’t need to give them anything but life to make them extremely powerful and wonderful.
The final product, because it had to be something the postal service would deliver and that SUNSTONE could stand by, involved getting permission and agreement from several people. But permission and agreement were obtained on some pretty terrific points. You’ll notice, for instance, that Eve’s breasts are bare, because we agreed to expose them instead of covering them with her hair (though we agreed that she couldn’t be very nipple-y). You’ll notice that there’s a black Angela Moroni in the upper-left corner. You’ll notice that there are two lady angels initiating a fairly intense embrace in the upper-right. you’ll see that there is an inter-racial same-sex angel couple holding hands at the right edge of the image just below Heavenly Mother.
We also had A LOT of fun coming up with illustrations for essays by noted feminist scholars Janice Allred and Margaret Toscano. I’m pretty sure it was originally Galen’s idea to depict Heavenly Mother in four different manifestations, and she wanted some sort of way of unifying them. My suggestion: “one thing that struck me was the similarity of the four images you propose with the queens in the tarot deck.” Galen didn’t limit herself to a strict adherence to what the suits represent or how they’re expressed, but that was useful. We played with different ways to Mormonize the images–one easy thing was to add a beehive to each. But the most fun was to make the Goddess of Cups, the “Mother Nurturer,” a hot blonde pioneer woman in a prairie dress offering you a long cool drink of water while a wagon train passes in the distance behind her.
My favorite of those images is the Goddess of Swords, or, as she’s called on the banner beneath her portrait, “Mother Protector.” She’s sort of a cross between Galadriel and Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior.” My second favorite is the Goddess of Coins, or our “Mother Teacher,” a four-armed black goddess reading the gold plates. She has a traditional goddess symbol, the triple moon, above her head, and is in a building that we imagined as a Mormon meeting house, though the details that would have demonstrated that were too fussy and disappeared.
This is what I was working on when the whole Randy Bott thing erupted. One of my friends wrote to ask me why I hadn’t weighed in on it. I said I was too busy, but that what I was busy with would provide some commentary on it all. I think that depicting a Mormon goddess of wisdom as a black woman reading and teaching from gold plates is a pretty good response to all that nonsense.
If you haven’t seen the issue, I hope you will check it out. And if you like the art, you can purchase it on everything from a maternity t-shirt to a shower curtain to a plain old poster at Sunstone’s cafe press page for this collection.
And if you’re coming to the Sunstone symposium this year, there are two sessions about Heavenly Mother I’m organizing. Session 131, Thursday 26 July, 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., “Images of the Feminine Divine,” is inspired in part by the art in this issue, though it will encompass other topics. The other, Session 171, Thursday, 26 July, 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., “Heavenly Mother and the Letter of the Law,” is a session in which people will read letters to Heavenly Mother since we can’t have a prayer or testimony meeting devoted to her. You can find abstracts for the sessions in the Sunstone preliminary program online.