Raised sometimes in the South Pacific, sometimes stateside, by a white American father and a Kiribati mother, Fidalis Buehler began his studies at the University of Hawaii not in fine art but in business. On the strength of drawings in the margins of his assignments, he was persuaded to switch majors, career trajectories, and identities. The split, divided—but also multiple—Identity is one of many themes played out in his work (drawing in the margins might also be).
Other identity splits condensed in his paintings include white/non-white, American/Pasifika, Mormon/Kiribati, human/animal, and Insider/Outsider along with any number of more situational divisions like Good Guy/Bad Guy, helper/danger, magic/religion, mask/face. Not even his identities as an artist are settled. Is he an American Impressionist, combining the tonalism of Twachtman with the perspectival flattening and color theory of Milton Avery and Grandma Moses; or a Pasifika artist, merging the narrative potency of Kiribati storytelling with the “faux-naïve” or “primitivist” styles commonly associated with indigenous and autoditactic art?
Mormonism only deepens the tensions between so many of these binaries. Is this Mormon art? At first glance it does not read particularly Mormon or even religious (though it is obsessed with the spiritual, if only in an untamed sense many Mormons would likely find disquieting). This question dovetails with the split contained in Buehler’s biracial status. This is art by a person of color—exploring the meanings and memories of racial ambiguity, mixed heritage, and changing statuses of personhood (“conversion”)—that will resonate most fully with communities of color. It is not white man’s art except perhaps through acts of cultural colonialism implicit not just in western fine art but in America’s relationship with the South Pacific and the Mormon expansionism it capacitated. In any case, whether one takes this as a cultural indictment or a mere description of genre, it seems clear that to the degree that this is art for a community of color, it is manifestly not Mormon art.
And yet there are unquestionably Mormon signatures at work here, though in this case they are un-domesticated through his mother’s narratives, words, and memories. The sacred protectiveness of clothing, the transmission of saving power, the potential holiness of space, even redemption and atonement—these themes run deeply and broadly, yet are refracted through the Kiribati cultural practices and storytelling that charge his maternal line. Even the title—I Give You Powers—condenses this tension between incommensurable spiritualities and spiritual identities. Had it read “I Give You Power” the subtext would be undeniably LDS, straight out of the Book of Mormon. Mormon priesthood is unitary and unified. Pluralization—Powers—implies something less contained and controlled, less American, less white, and less Mormon.
A final note on Buehler’s (non) status as a “Mormon artist,” this regarding his position in the community of Mormon artists. Brian Eno once famously commented that although the initial run of The Velvet Underground’s first album only sold a few thousand copies, everyone who bought it started a band. Fidalis might not be the best known artist in the Mormon universe. But he is the artist the other artists collect.
And maybe everyone who buys one of his paintings will start a band.