Museum of Art exhibition director shares spiritual lessons learned from art

BYU Museum of Art exhibition director Janalee Emmer speaks to students about lessons she has learned from art during the March 9 BYU devotional. She discussed the importance of fostering creativity and the power of art to help people empathize with others and have faith in difficult times. (Alyssa Dahneke/BYU Photo)

Janalee Emmer, Museum of Art associate director of exhibitions and programming, shared secular and spiritual insights she has gained from art and artists in the March 9 BYU devotional.

She expanded on three lessons she has learned from art, which were the importance of fostering creativity, art’s ability to connect people with others and the need for faith in difficult times.

She asked the audience to consider what they were doing to keep the Creator’s spark alive in their own souls. “We all have unique gifts and skills,” Emmer said. “Your time at the university is an incredible opportunity to investigate, experiment and develop those gifts.”

Creativity, Emmer said, is necessary for success in every field. She called on the audience to consider their own interests, find a way to pursue them and prioritize that part of their lives.

“It is my prayer that we might be true to the Creator’s spark that is in each of us, and use that spark to make our corner of the world a better place,” she said.

One thing Emmer said she appreciates about art is the wide range of creativity in the world. Some artists might use their art to shed light on injustice while others use it to offer comforting solace and beauty, but all are honoring the Creator’s spark within them.

As people study art from artists with different perspectives than their own, Emmer said their capacity for understanding difference will be expanded. She gave an example of the mandala paintings Buddhists used to help themselves focus during prayer and meditation.

“If you have ever struggled with prayer or found it hard to quiet your mind and listen, you suddenly have something in common with Buddhist monks and practitioners who have used mandala paintings to assist them,” she said.

Emmer also shared Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Maynard Dixon’s “Forgotten Man” to show how art from nearly a century ago can relate to all people. “Whom among us hasn’t felt like they are metaphorically alone on a curb with life passing them by?” she asked.

Emmer shares Arnold Friberg’s painting “Peace, Be Still” during the March 9 BYU devotional to illustrate how even when surrounded by darkness and drama, Christ is full of peace and light. She invited listeners to remember Him in the moments that wound their souls and their faith. (Alyssa Dahneke/BYU Photo)

The diversity of artwork in the world parallels the gospel truth that the beautiful and the terrible exist everywhere, she said. She compared this diversity to the reality of a God who is both a God of miracles and a God of agency — a God who created an exquisitely beautiful world but allows violence and cruelty to plague it.

“It is a mark of spiritual maturity to be able to hold both of those truths in your heart at the same time,” she said. “And it is tested faith that is able to weather these paradoxes, leaning upon the Lord’s pronouncement that His ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts.”

She shared Arnold Friberg’s painting “Peace, Be Still,” and said it shows the darkness and drama still surrounding the Savior even as He stills the storm.

Even though people may not see the holy help around them, she reminded the audience it is there. She said they will find as they go that hearts that seemed broken will begin to beat again.

“I hope that each of you feel deeply loved and essential in the family of God,” she said. “As we hold onto our faith, He will transform our hearts and our perspectives so they will beat in harmony with His and with our fellow men.”

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