Mississippi Delta Artist Joe Moorman discusses the influence of Mormonism on his early life and artwork.
These paintings and their stories are about growing up Mormon in the Mississippi Delta, and they are some of my most naive work. I started painting from the imagination, and these memories were the first thing to explode out of my subconscious.
Eventually I hope to tell the story of my earliest memory from Primary. Primary is a Wednesday church service for Mormon children with lessons just like at Sunday School: mainly stories about Christ and the Apostles, Moses and the Old Testament Prophets, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the early history of the Church. My earliest memory of Primary was talking with Sister Ward on the sidewalk before the service started. Sister Ward was an old widow whose son had been killed in Viet Nam, so she adored me and the other boys no matter how badly we behaved. She was sure the Lord had big plans for us all, and she constantly told us so.
On the day I remember, my friend Ben Harper and I had been throwing rocks at blackbirds on the power line before the service started. Sister Ward saw us and came out and told us to stop. She asked us if we would be doing this if Jesus could see us and then reminded us that He did see. She told us that Jesus was always watching over us. She said she knew that He was because she had prayed for Jesus to look after us just as He had watched over her boy when he was alive.
Then she wasn’t upset anymore, and she talked with Ben and me as she lead us back into the church. As always, she told us that we should always try to live right because she was sure the Lord had big plans for us, “Especially you, Joseph Moorman, with a name like you have. You’re young now, but you’ll be grown before you know it and off on a mission spreading the Gospel. You know the Prophet Joseph Smith was only sixteen when the Lord first spoke to him.”
I told her my name wasn’t Joseph, just Joe, but Sister Ward said that really didn’t matter.
Then we went into the chapel where Sister Davies was just about to start the sermon of the main service. I think we had already missed the opening prayer because they were already singing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” or something like that.
Anyway, we sat down in the back with Sister Ward, and Sister Davies began the sermon. That day, Sister Davies’s lesson was about how God called the prophet Abraham. I remember this lesson distinctly.
At first, Abraham was just a man living in the city of Ur in Babylon. He didn’t even know about God because Ur was a heathen city. And his name wasn’t even Abraham. It was just Abram. But none of this mattered. What mattered was that the Lord knew about Abram and had plans for him. The Lord came to Abram in a dream and told him that his new name was Abraham and that he would be a great prophet.
We all unlearn many things from our childhood, but I think we unlearn them at an intellectual level and not at an emotional level. I think the things lodged within us at this deeper level persist for life. At the core, I have never been able to shake the idea that the Lord was preparing me to write an important book, and that is why everything happened the way it did. The more rational part of my mind has scoffed at this idea, even laughed and ridiculed, but it has never been able to change things, not at the very core.
* * * * *
My art has strong religious influences, but I’m not religious, at least not in the conventional sense. When I left home for college, I put organized religion behind me and did my best to forget all about the LDS church over the next decade or so. However, given the role of fundamentalism around the world and particularly here in the US, I think some of what I experienced as a Mormon growing up has relevance and should be explored. That’s the rational way of explaining all the prophet imagery in my art. Here’s the irrational:
I keep having this bad dream that an Arab millionaire has declared war on the US and the worst thing in the nightmare is that education in the US has gotten so bad that they elect this televangelist president that hires a bunch of corporate yes-men to screw up everything. And on top of that, the Lord is expecting me to tell them how He feels about all the smug consumers driving around in SUVs the size of a house while our corporations plunder the globe and make everyone hate us even more.
That might sound like a blasphemous attempt at a bad joke, but consider how much there is in the Bible about the greed of Rome and Babylon. Those guys were amateurs compared to the conspicuous lifestyles we have. What our corporations do overseas while nobody is looking would have made Nero or Nebuchadnezzar blush.
When I was a boy of about 8, religion was a very serious matter for me, very serious, perhaps the way it is for some terminally ill people. Every day at school was living hell, and my parents were constantly screaming about a divorce, so the LDS church was the most stable and reassuring thing in my life. In the LDS church, every boy is raised to hold the priesthood, and from the age of about six he is told that the Lord has a special plan for his life, an important plan, perhaps as important as the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was only 16 when the Lord first informed him that he was to restore the gospel to the earth and translate the Book of Mormon. I’m sure it didn’t help that my name is Joe Moorman.
The dominant myth of my childhood was the archetype of the prophet. No matter how much technical skill I acquire in the coming years, I will still be working in the tradition of the evangelical southern folk artist.
Here are some pictures and stories about growing up Mormon in the Mississippi Delta:
Little Boys and Tadpoles is a story about my earliest memories of church and my Mormon friends.
The Angel Moroni is a story about watching questionable educational films at school where I was told that the Mormons were a cult.
Thousand Flower Jesus is about the real values of Christians and how different they are from that of Christ of the gospels.
The Artist Being Ordained is a painting of my ordination into the priesthood as a boy in the Mississippi Delta.
Moses and the Burning Bush is a mosaic of the prophet on the mountain, the vision in the high desert.
Atlanta Passion is an image of the passion of the artist, the vision in the night, older than the cave paintings of Lascaux.
Rosetta Stone is a divination tablet, a lightning rod, a seer stone, an “umin and thummim” of sorts.
Pharaoh’s Dream is a retelling of the story of seven years of lean.
Jacob’s Dream in the Wilderness is a dream of my wanderings, sleeping rough in ditches and fence lines.
Armadillos at Whispering Mound is a story about wandering across the landscape of Missississippi, where my father’s people have lived since the early 1800’s, since before Mississippi was a state, which suredly means that their bloodline includes Choctaw and people before the melting of the glaciers.
Confrontation between the saints is a story about my father, descendant of generations of Baptist moonshiners interacting with LDS missionairies.
The Dove Returns is a bad piece of 1970’s religious art, the type you might see in an alternative Episcopal church.
Purple Mountains is a stylized landscape which was quickly executed.
Searching for Atlantis is about how little time Christians spend thinking about the Gospels compared to how much time they spend on fire, damnation and the Apocalypse.
Moroni with Green Parrot is a picture of the Angel Moroni with Runt Conroy’s green parrot.
Mormon Crickets is another picture of the Angel Moroni showing seagulls coming to eat the Mormon crickets, which were destroying the Saints’ first harvest in Salt Lake.
Atlanta Passion Seated is a picture of the artist working on his art while his wife sleeps alone.
Bad Dream in the Red Chair is a painting of one of those moments when everything we know as an adult ends, and we revert to the emotional modes of our childhood.
Get Thee Down to Egypt is a question: If the Lord called a prophet during the time of the Bush Administration, what would He say?
Johnboat Vision How can a crazy folk artist compete these days? How can you walk around with a sign that says “the end is near” when the politicians and media are doing such a good job of it themselves?
Study for Ram is an illustration for a short story about a man who steals the art of writing at the dawn of civilization.