How a queer BYU student poured her experiences into art

Maddison Tenney was working on a ceramics project in Brigham Young University’s old B66 building late one night when a message on her phone caused her to run outside, her hands still covered in clay.

Looking up at the mountain above the school, she smiled to see that it was true: a group had secretly illuminated the eponymous “Y” on the hill in rainbow colors in a demonstration against the private religious school’s LGBTQ policies.

Tenney stood in her apron and stared at the display on the cold March night of 2021. It was the first time, she said, that she felt like she wasn’t alone on campus. As a queer student who felt the need to hide that part of herself, Tenney said, “Suddenly I felt like I could be myself here. It was this beautiful and divine moment.”

She credits that night for helping her come out as queer in front of more people and coming to terms with herself at school sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And now she’s using that experience, and the one she’s had since there as an LGBTQ student, as inspiration for her art.

Tenney has a new exhibit at the Provo school that explores the intersection of her sexuality and spirituality. It focuses on those similar moments, which she describes as “divine” for both of their identities.

Her art can be seen in an exhibition entitled “Ganz Göttlich” until December 6th. The idea is that as a queer and LDS person, she is whole and sacred.

“It’s the most vulnerable art I’ve ever done,” said the 24-year-old senior at BYU, where she studies art and English literature.

It might seem surprising that the school didn’t push back or block the exhibit — which Tenney said she originally expected.

Although the faith does not prohibit homosexual members from attending religious services, they are instructed not to act on their attraction; If they do, they may be disfellowshipped from the church. Likewise, through its strict code of honor, BYU prohibits same-sex romantic partnerships or displays of affection among LGBTQ students. Those who break the rules will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including expulsion.

The school also bans all protests against those rules, a policy that came after the “Y” drew national attention to the Provo campus.

But Tenney said her art is not a demonstration; it’s about finding space for herself and others in the LGBTQ community in the faith she loves.

When she first suggested the idea to her advisor, she laughed as she recalled explaining that the exhibition would be about religion. “But can I make it gay?” she asked. The idea, she said, was approved without any hurdles.

BYU recently moved its art department to the old Provo High School building, which has plenty of gallery space and more opportunities for exhibitions. The department, Tenney said, has encouraged all students to produce exhibits.

Entering Gallery E, where Tenney’s work is displayed, feels like entering an LDS chapel. That’s on purpose.

Tenney hung white curtains in the room, like those that hang over the sacrament tables in faith meetinghouses. “I don’t know why we always have 3-inch fringes, but I even made my curtains the same design,” she said.

The curtains are also repurposed from the same white sheets used in August by a group dressed as angels blocking those protesting a drag show Tenney was organizing as a back-to-school event for LGBTQ students .

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People dressed as “angels” arrive at Raynbow Collective’s Back to School Pride Night for BYU students on Saturday, September 3, 2022 at Kiwanis Park in Provo to block counter-protesters.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maddison Tenney, a student at BYU who is making a multimedia art exhibition about the queer experience at BYU entitled Wholly Divine, is preparing her installation on Friday, November 18, 2022 , in the west campus kind of front building.

And most of the artworks she creates have a similar tension, with sometimes conflicting notions of religion and identity, love and hate, history and modernity.

Her main piece is a living stained glass work hanging in front of one of the curtains. Tenney said the medium spoke to her because the glass itself plays with the broader imagery of Christianity, dating back centuries.

In the smaller square frames are parts of her family history, with genealogy having a strong place in Mormonism. She replicated quilt patterns from her grandmother and great-grandmother. In other places it has worked its way into the glass “tissue”. It has the state outline of Utah and a rainbow flag.

When Tenney said she came out as queer, she felt detached from her family heritage, like she was no longer a part of what they represented or believed in as a woman, and was pushed out of the church.

Explaining the piece, on a plaque next to the stained-glass windows, she wrote: “Remaking my ancestor’s quilts in this medium and inserting my own stories into the panes helped me to feel connected to them again.”

In front of the piece of stained glass is another reminder of her family: a weathered wooden pew from an LDS chapel that has been passed down for generations. It first came to the Tenneys of Canada when a church was being rebuilt there and their family wanted to keep a piece of the old structure. In a way, she reclaims it in this space and literally makes a place for herself.

Jeanne Gomm, the owner of Gomm Stained Glass in Provo, helped Tenney assemble the centerpiece.

They talked about how glass works, how complicated it is to lay out, Gomm said, how hot and cold work together to shape it. “It was great to see her symbolism expressed on so many levels, really,” the teacher said. “The more you think about it and look at it, the more there is.”

Using the paradoxes of her identity as a theme, Tenney said she liked bringing that up through multiple details. There are a number of ceramic plates with one sentence at the top and another at the bottom that can be read in a variety of ways. One says, “Christ is on the edge, let’s meet him there.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maddison Tenney, a BYU student making a multimedia art exhibition about the queer experience at BYU entitled Wholly Divine, begins Friday, November 18, 2022 Installation of your exhibition.

Tenney said she cried as she managed to “work through those hard feelings.”

The rims are filled with blue and white designs (another nod to art and religious history) that Tenney says are meant to represent the beauty of those literal rims on the plates, as well as the people on the rims of the church.

Another plate is divided in two. One half says “love others” and the other half says “love yourself”. It is based on a quote from the Bible. Tenney said you need both parts to fulfill God’s command to extend love to who you are, as you are, and to your neighbors who may not be like you.

The last pieces in the exhibition are three carved ceramic vases. As you walk around them, they tell a tale of Tenney’s experiences. The first begins with a silhouette of Tenney praying, which she said was from her LDS proselytizing mission in Philadelphia. It was then in 2019, she said, that she realized she was queer and asked for advice.

She said she felt an overwhelming reaction of divine love, the first moment she felt accepted for her faith and her sexuality.

Remarkably, the second begins with the “Y” on the mountain and a silhouette of her standing outside looking up at him. That night she founded the Raynbow Collective, an organization she runs to support her queer classmates at BYU. And she joined the next two rainbow illuminations of the “Y.”

There are also the angels and the protesters featured at this year’s third vase of the Back-to-School event, including a tiny carving of drag artist Jaliah Jambalaya in her hand-blinded rainbow BYU sweatshirt. LGBTQ students and supporters are seen crossing their arms like they did that night to block those shouting insults.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaliah heralds the start of the show as the Raynbow Collective hosts a Back to School Pride Night for BYU students on Saturday, September 3, 2022 at Kiwanis Park in Provo.

“People show up for you,” Tenney said. “It’s sacred to me.”

They showed up for the exhibition’s opening night this month, sometimes with 20 people filling the small room. “I love this setup,” said one. “So beautiful,” added another visitor.

Tenney likes the vases best because they hold space – literally and figuratively. And the glaze on the inside is also symbolic. When it’s in the oven, the tension on the outside becomes greater than the tension on the inside and it breaks into a puzzle-like design; those on the fringes of the faith are trying to find their way in, Tenney said.

She adds with a smile, “Of course, the glaze is from Nephi, Utah.”

Art exhibition “All Divine”.

Maddison Tenney’s Wholly Divine exhibit will be open to the public through December 6 at BYU’s art department.

Opening times • Monday to Friday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

Address • ​​West Campus Art Building, 1125 N. University Ave., Provo

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. How a queer BYU student poured her experiences into art

Justin Scacco

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