Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Wes Hempel: Artist, Writer, Gay Man, Observer of Mormonism

A couple of months ago, while working on a post, I ran across the amazing art of Wes Hempel, an artist and writer who lives in rural Colorado.  He happens to be gay, and a lot of his art depicts amazingly beautiful young men.  In a recent interview, Wes explained to blogger Philip Clark what many, but not all, of his paintings are about:  “One of my ongoing interests is a re-visioning of what art history might have looked like had homosexuality not been vilified in the culture.  A walk through any major museum will reveal paintings that depict and, therefore, legitimate only certain kinds of experience.  While the canon’s merits are rightfully being questioned, the paintings of the old masters on the walls of museums like the Met, the Louvre, and the Rijksmuseum still have an undeniable cache.  They're revered not just for their technique but because they enshrine our collective past experience.  It's a selected past, of course, that gets validated.  Conspicuously absent to me as a gay man is my own story.  By presenting contemporary males as objects of desire in borrowed art historical settings, I'm able to imagine (and allow viewers to imagine) a past that includes rather than excludes gay experience--and thereby ride the coattails, as it were, of art history's imprimatur.  Many of my paintings work on this level (some rather playfully).” [Source:  The Artpoint]

An example of such “revisionist gay art” is Wes’ painting, Fatherhood, which I ran across while preparing a post about things I could be grateful for as a result of being in the closet for all of my adult life (i.e., up until recently).  I laughed out loud when I saw it because it depicted so well what I had often felt as a father of (numerous) young children (particularly since I was a closeted gay man).  This painting is pictured below, and immediately below it is the painting upon which it is based, Charity by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

I decided I had to use the picture for my post entitled Grateful for Years in the Closet?. Imagine my surprise when, a few weeks later, I received an e-mail from Wes.  When I first saw his message in my inbox, I thought, “Uh oh, he’s probably upset that I used an image of his painting without asking.”  But, quite to the contrary, Wes had written a very nice e-mail in which he explained that he had recently been (as we Mormons would say) tracted out by a couple of young elders.  He had apparently had a conversation with them in which the subject of being gay had come up, and had thereafter decided to try to learn more about Mormon beliefs. 

Wes’ research eventually led him, presumably through Google, to my blog. “As a gay man who knows nothing about Mormonism,” he wrote to me, “I thought it perhaps fortuitous that I stumbled onto your blog ... Could you clear something up for me about Mormon belief?”  He then proceeded to pose a few questions about Mormon beliefs concerning families and homosexuality which I was only too happy to try to answer.

Thereafter followed a series of e-mail exchanges between Wes and me, in which I tried to explain various intricacies of Mormonism’s often Byzantine theology.  I mean, after all, there is so much contradiction among the Brethren concerning homosexuality and what being gay may or may not mean to a member of the Church – both here in mortality as well as in eternity – that it is virtually impossible for us Mormons to understand it, let alone try to explain it (in any sort of rational manner) to someone who is not a member of the Church.

Wes, who is a writer as well as an artist, had decided to write a written response to the missionaries, and this evolved into an essay which he is currently in the process of submitting for publication.  As he developed his essay and sought clarification on a couple of points of Mormon doctrine, he (in a very gracious manner) expressed mild exasperation.  “The more I learn,” he wrote, “the trickier things seem to get.  Mormonism is like a fortress with so many layers of doctrinal protection as to seem impenetrable.” I had smiled when I read this (and later suggested that this image would make for a very interesting painting); but then I laughed out loud when I read what he next wrote: “I'm guessing Ecumenism isn't much embraced.” No, I explained to Wes in a subsequent e-mail, Mormons don’t really “do” ecumenism.  “How do you [Mormons] communicate,” he continued, “with someone who lives on a different plane of existence?”  How indeed?

As part of his research, Wes had read about President Packer’s talk in October Conference.  He asked me to read over what he had written about Packer’s remarks.  When I did so, I was stunned by Wes’ insights.  Here is part of what he wrote (which I have used with Wes’ permission) after citing President Packer’s infamous statements implying that homosexuality is a choice: 

Why would our “Heavenly Father” saddle an innocent child with “inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural”?  Though it seems clear Mr. Packer intended to claim gays can change their sexual orientation and become straight (a contradiction of the official church position), his words are extraordinary if taken at face value … If homosexuality is not a choice but is instead intrinsic, the inescapable conclusion is that homosexuality is not “impure” or “unnatural.”  Rather, it must be just another aspect of God’s creation.  Alongside heterosexuality, homosexuality must be another expression of the Divine … Where else could these desires come from, except our Creator?  If the feelings are elemental to the intrinsic makeup of our children, how could they be unnatural or impure?  As Mr. Packer asks, ‘Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?’  Indeed, why?  God is not a monster who tortures children.  That role has been assumed by others.

These are insights (about the “impure” and “unnatural”) that I don’t believe I have seen articulated anywhere or by anyone else. In point of fact, I think Wes’ comments articulate points that expose how illogical President Packer’s comments are, points that are so obvious that I think they have escaped notice, even from many gay Mormons.

Wes’ comments are all the more relevant to Mormons, both gay and straight, in that he himself came out of a very conservative Christian background that had a significant impact on his life as a young adult.  Furthermore, like many gay Mormons, he continues to feel a longing to be a part of a religious community and tradition that was once extremely important to him – even though this community and faith strongly rejects his homosexuality. 

As I contemplate the existential and emotional bind created by this longing and rejection, my thoughts turn toward Wes’ approach to his art.  As Philip Clark wrote on his blog in connection with his interview of Wes, “Wes Hempel's men are the visual equivalent of a contemporary mirror to the art historical past.  But with one essential element restored: This is the male gaze, the gay male experience that was left out of history. These are the images that should have been painted -- indeed were lives that were lived and visually erased -- and he gives us back a history we can't forget.” [Source: The Artpoint]

In like manner, I wonder what the history of Mormonism and the history of (particularly recent) Christianity would look like if gays had been acknowledged, embraced, valued and loved in their various congregations and religious communities just as they were, rather than rejected and “erased”.  And what would Mormonism and Christianity look like today if such were the case?  One is left to wonder, and to deal – each in one’s own way – with that existential dilemma … and to anticipate a brighter future where such dilemma will no longer exist.

Rescue from the Sublime: This painting was one of several of Wes’ works that was featured on Philip Clark’s blog.  When I asked Wes about this painting, he wrote: "Rescue from the Sublime has a special place in my heart ... I was thinking how the beauty of the world can be overpowering at times, and how we need help from each other in enduring it.  I remember reading about people in the nineteenth century who were "soul struck" by scenic beauty, peaceful rivers, majestic mountains, etc. and would literally swoon.  Imagine! 

“And, of course, there's the larger metaphor that comes into play about the face of God and peering into the divine.  Sometimes we need to be rescued from God.  It's a paradox, because we can't not approach.  We have to look and ask the questions, but we need each other's support in doing so.  We have to rest in each other's arms ...”


  1. Excellent! And thanks for bringing this artist to our attention!

  2. Thank you for bringing Wes' work to our attention. His art, though beautiful in its own right, reflects the optimism, hope, and divinity that is our nature.

    What a wonderful way to begin a day!

  3. That's a great story and a fantastic artist! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for this learning and cultural experience. So many stereotypes need redefining or need to simply be dispelled. Art is, for me, the way in which to do it: literature, visual and plastic arts, music, etc for they change the imagination. The images we associate with the models in our mind will change the world and our interactions ... will bring about tolerance

  5. This is one of the singularly astounding posts I have ever read on any blog anywhere. I teach teachers how to empower the social studies using art, music and drama. Luckily I'm in NYC. I think I may have something to point them to. You (and Wes) have absolutely blown open a door to far deeper intellectual, emotional and spiritual understanding of who we are, our missing place in history and the extraordinary revolution that is now underway in both our current thinking and our near future action. I will always look to this post as the day the dam broke for once and for all. I can't thank you enough for this effort, and for every day you have written to get you to this singular moment. This post shall be picked up by more people than you can imagine.

  6. @Libellule - Thanks as always for your comments and insights.

    @Martin - Wow! What can I say? Thank you for your kind words. I am grateful to have "met" Wes and learned of his vision of the arts. I'm also very grateful for his objective insights into the "gay Mormon dilemma".

  7. Thank you for yoursin-depth look at the work of an amazing artist. I came across your blog while doing research for my own post about gay spiritual themes in Wes Hempel’s art. You put together an excellent post, and I quoted it with a link to your blog in my piece at the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts: Artist Wes Hempel paints gay spiritual struggles

    I’m also adding Invictus Pilgrim to my blog roll. I have been thinking about the issues that you raise because a reader recently asked me if there were any special saints for gay men married to women, prompted by a recent New York Times Magazine piece on the theme. It was titled “Living the Good Lie.”

  8. Thank you, KittKatt. I appreciate the link and look forward to reading your blog.