"It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool."
-- John Steinbeck
I can hardly claim credit for "discovering" the work of Jackie Leishman. In the first place, part of what sets her apart from so many of the artists Writ & Vision has exhibited is her established success outside of "Mormon Art" circles. She is hardly an unknown entity, even if the world of LDS art is only just now getting to know her. Second, she was the one who reached out, introducing herself to me during a 2017 visit to Utah (her home and studio are in Southern California). Yet learning of her existence and acquainting myself with her work felt like a discovery in the best, most serendipitous possible sense. This was something new, work that, despite the fact that she was proposing engaging a well-worn theme (another Mormon artist does The Creation??), was genuinely novel.
A series of objects, paintings, drawings, sculpted work, exhibiting varying degrees of figural representation and abstraction, engage specific reference points in the Creation story, together comprise a show that is both familiar and strange, grounded in proverbial and prosaic narrative but also disruptive of it. Much of what passes for engagement with or commentary on Creation, not just in Mormonism but in the broader cultural background formation, draws explicitly on the tension between narrative and nature, framed typically in terms of non-overlapping magisteria: science and faith, history and myth, empirical truth versus poetical truth, the parabolic from the demonstrably real (the representational and the abstract?). What has the narrative in question, with its nursery gardens and magic fruit and talking serpants and divine incantations, to do with what we "actually" know about where the world, including us humans, came from? Leishman's work complicates the tidy symmetry of division on several levels.
First, she contacts the story not via narrative entry points (days or periods or events) but through elements. Which is to say, her medium engages Creation precisely at the level of medium. The focus on elements--water, plants, moon--foregrounds the scientific framing, naturalizing and rationalizing the story, animating the subjects as material, rationally apprehensible processes. Yet the artistic medium enclosed by this naturalistic frame is abstract, expressive, largely eschewing formal representation in a manner alien to the language and idiom of scientific rationalism. To engage these questions of science and faith through such energetically abstract forms may not be entirely novel in the wider art world. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that escalating tension with an inescapable scientific rationality itself underwrites the rise of abstract expressionism.
Still, in the history and context of Mormon art, this is very probably without precedent.
In traditional religious communities very often this separation between theological and scientific narratives of origins functions as a kind of virtual boundary around the group, where fidelity to the scriptural story over and against the naturalistic account sets the devout markedly apart from profane worldly discourses. It is noteworthy that, for a religion that devotes enormous energy to maintaining social boundaries, Mormonism ascribes relatively minimal significance on creationist orthodoxies as an identity marker. Still, Leishman's work along this ideological border region strikes me as decidedly Mormon for another reason. Biologists point to the importance of habitat borders, transitional regions, for increasing biodiversity. The so-called Edge Effect, the fact that the ecological niches along and between the boundaries that separate habitat zones are often the sites for dramatic growth patterns in the diversity of flora and fauna, implicates everything from human impacts on the environment to the origins of life itself. Tide pools, shallow puddles of seawater that tend to form (and unform) along intertidal shorelines and sustain particularly adaptable and diverse forms of life, are often hypothesized by biologists as the likeliest source of the first forms of life. (This, incidentally, is why the presence of an unusually large satellite moon is a crucial factor in the emergence of life on earth, not just because it stabilized our planetary orbit but because it produced and sustained such a vast and rich ecological border zone).
Tide pools are the place where border detritus comes together to form life, where the formless acquires form, where matter self-organizes into something dynamic and potent. They are, in a naturalistic idiom, exemplary of what makes Mormon Creation narratives so distinctive among conservative religions. In the Mormon tradition, Creation is not a summoning of non-being into Being. It is not ex nihilo. It is an ordering of disorder, a bringing together of matter and organizing it, the transformation of chaos into cosmos. It is not a transition from non-being into Being, but rather from element into life, from unorganized parts into an organized whole.
And it is beautiful.
The parallels to art here do not really require exposition. Jackie Leishman's artistic contemplations of Creation as ordering process rather than narrated event--a show that not only depicts but embodies and enacts this ordering of constituent elements into a dynamic, messy, but genuinely aesthetically pleasing whole--might be the most iconic Mormon rendering of Art-as-Creation one could imagine.