BYU alumni explore the divine feminine through art, research

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Amber Richardson uses art as a means of exploring her questions. She began to develop questions about the doctrine of Heavenly Mother — one unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while studying theater at BYU.

“I wanted to know who I was,” said Richardson, who graduated from BYU in 2013. “If some aspect of my femaleness is an eternal part of my existence, how do I know who I am if I can’t see who (Heavenly Mother) is?”

Richardson and photographer Anna Killian are looking for answers to this question through their collaborative project, “Woman, Crowned.” The project, which the pair said they hope to publish as a book in 2020, combines research, prose and photography to explore how scriptural queens act as archetypes for Heavenly Mother.

“There are all of these queens in the scriptures, and sometimes, very rarely, we’ll refer to Heavenly Mother as the Queen of Heaven,” Richardson said. “So many of them have interesting connections to the divine Mother that are under the surface if you know what you’re looking for.”

Richardson said she hopes this project will be an “access point” for anyone looking to learn more about Heavenly Mother. She emphasized the taboo around the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother and the resulting trepidation many Church members feel about discussing the subject originated from culture, not from Church authorities.

“I don’t want to tell anybody who (Heavenly Mother) is, because I think that process of discovery is really sacred and really personal, but if I can create an opening, then that would make me feel really happy,” Richardson said.

Richardson worked on several projects relating to women’s religious experiences and what she calls “the divine feminine” as a BYU student. These earlier works include “Splitting the Sky,” a 32-part documentary series about women’s encounters with God; her performance of Carolyn Pearson’s one-woman play, “Mother Wove the Morning”; and her essay, “Crowned in Charity and Power,” which was published by temple dress designer Rosemary Card.

Killian was at BYU working on her BFA in photography while Richardson was working on these projects. Killian, inspired by the art of Katie Payne and the poetry of Rachel Hunt Steenblik, said she decided to center her final project on the divine feminine. She surveyed several hundred women about their personal religious experiences, particularly those experiences related to Heavenly Mother, and based her photography on their responses.

When Richardson saw Killian’s photography and Killian read Richardson’s “Crowned in Charity and Power,” the two women said they knew they needed to collaborate.

In her personal study, Richardson said she noted how scriptural men are often types of Christ, and wondered if scriptural women could be considered types of Heavenly Mother.

“This idea that women in the scriptures might typify a Divine Mother, I didn’t learn that anywhere,” Richardson said. “It wasn’t anything I’d ever been taught, but as I started working with the idea, it just made so much sense to me.”

Though scriptural references to women are often brief and scattered, Richardson said, they are also impactful.

“I think we often, with women in the scriptures, we downplay their importance and their relevance, because oftentimes, they’re scattered through the text, we don’t usually get to see them longitudinally. We see a point in their life. But I’ve learned that those points are full of goodness and truth and nourishment,” Richardson said.

Anna Killian
Laura Schnell models as Queen Aseneth for Amber Richardson’s project exploring women from the scriptures as archetypes of Heavenly Mother. (Anna Killian)

Killian said photographic representations of scriptural women are also scarce.

One such scriptural queen is Aseneth, the wife of Joseph.

“Aseneth is kind of a mystery,” Richardson said. “We never talk about her, ever, … which is very peculiar to me, because she’s the mother of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.”

Richardson and Killian said they asked Laura Schnell, an associate from BYU, to model as Queen Aseneth. Schnell prepared for the project by studying Aseneth.

“Aseneth is the mother of Manasseh and Ephraim, so she’s kind of the matriarch,” Schnell said. “She represents that gathering and that unity that Zion also represents.”

Schnell said she felt connected to Aseneth, an Egyptian woman, who married into the Jewish covenant. Schnell was born in Colombia, but was raised in America by her single mother.

“I kind of connected with coming to this country. … There is some automatic renewal that you’re going to do with yourself as far as your cultural identity,” Schnell said. “I can see maybe what Aseneth would have embraced, some of the things she would have needed to sacrifice in order to join Joseph’s bloodline. So it kind of felt like a cool connection. Like, I know what it’s like to be a foreigner in another land.”

Schnell said she was uncomfortable modeling at first but her lack of experience also helped her connect to Aseneth.

“It felt pretty personal to be able to be creative with my representation of someone people don’t know much about,” Schnell said.

Killian said she hopes everyone who reads the book will be able to experience this same kind of connection.

“We tried to get lots of people from different backgrounds: lots of ethnicities, all shapes, sizes, ages, things like that,” Killian said. “When someone opens the book, I want them to see themselves.”

Killian said the project was empowering to her personally, as it helped her see the “power and strength and stamina” in the women she works with in her own photography business.

As a new mother, Schnell agreed and said the project was emboldening insofar as it connected her to Heavenly Mother. “(Working on this project) helped me see myself in a light that I think our heavenly parents want me to see myself,” Schnell said.

Richardson said working on “Woman, Crowned” was helping her find answers to those questions that had caused her so much distress before.

“I feel like I’m starting to see who (Heavenly Mother) is,” she said. “It’s been my experience that the more the blinders come off, I’ve never been disappointed,” Richardson said.

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