Trevor Southey’s “Dark Light”

Trevor Southey is one of the greatest living Mormon or post-Mormon artists. You can see his work at . His “Dark Light” has come to have significant meaning for me. You can find a picture of this work at… it is an approximately 3′ x 5′ mixed-media piece. A bronze figure, about 3 feet in height, hangs from a wooden cross, embedded within the painting. Clear resin wedges appear to extend the trunk and arms of the cross from the top and sides of the work. Nails and thorns are embedded within the clear wedges.

Trevor is a South African origin, and converted during his youth to Mormonism. He eventually taught fine art at BYU, married, became the father of six children, and acknowledged his identity as a gay person. He was one of the individuals featured in the recent PBS broadcast with regard to Mormonism.

I had the opportunity to meet Trevor in person at last fall’s Affirmation conference in Los Angeles. He is a remarkable individual -one of those from whom most people feel at a distance the emanation of human warmth. As an aside, I had the opportunity to spend quite a while chatting with Mike Quinn at the same conference. This is the second time I’ve had the opportunity to chat intimately with him. He and Trevor have a similar ability to project immense human warmth.

The following is a summary of some thoughts I had with regard to “Dark Light”, and shared with Trevor. He was kind enough to respond, and so his ideas and feelings are found below as well.

First, here is what I had to say:

‘Some people may perceive this piece to be a barely modern take on crucifixion. I enjoy the fact that my many still religious family and friends would read it that way, and feel moved by it within their own belief system. But of course, death and resurrection are a near universal theme. Your piece represents beautifully the way in which most of us experience, at some point in life, the death of one aspect of ourselves, and the birth or a resurgence of another. Many of us pass through several iterations of this regenerative process.

Here are a few of the details that stood out to me. Why is the male in agony and the female so peaceful? The process of letting go is, terrifically, painful. The sense of new growth within is similarly enlivening and peaceful. The juxtaposition of these two images captures that aspect of the process to near perfection.

Why is the dove prostrate on the ground instead of flying, and why is it surrounded by what looks like blood? One type of “spirit” or overarching architecture, philosophical foundation, worldview, or what have you must die in order for another to take its place. This is what Schumpeter referred to as “creative destruction”. It is part of biology, sociology, economics, as well as many of the physical sciences. A disordering precedes new ordering. Again, the dead or dying dove, presumably representing the Holy Ghost, captures that wonderfully.

Where is the darkness and where is the light? Notice the panel of light near the dying male figure. Notice the way in which geometric lines are found only on the male side of the image, and how that implies the passage of time. The male figure is time bound. The female, representing growth, is suspended in the eternal realm. She can come back for us as many times as necessary, to renew us as we passed through time. I like the imagery of the female being involved in her own world, and focused on that world, instead of looking wistfully or in any other way toward the male figure.”

And here is part of Trevor’s response:

“One of the greatest values in any work of art that is significant is the variety of interpretation that it allows.

As I worked on the piece I focused on the paradoxical and excruciating joy that exists in the confinement of the beloved and familiar, one’s culture or religion. The context of any particular faith adds many levels of pain when one realizes the confinement is on the one hand nurturing and consuming in its embrace but it is on the other suffocating and perilous to the souls of those who become aware of the fact that they live within a lie. Of course that is a gross oversimplification since there are so many subtle shades of grey in that awareness. After all, it is not all “a lie” which is a sad position many adopt in the moment of feeling betrayed. And all this occurs within the strange aspect of the human creature to the things of the spirit…at least for most humans.

For me the female figure in the work lives within the world I lay out above. She is awakening. She becomes aware of her confinement. She is born again as she still remains an unwinding embryo within the geometric womb. She rises from her kneeling faithful familiarity, and touches the edges of her known spiritual world, inherited as was your case, assumed as in mine. She is on the cusp of loss, the safety of the womb and a broad frightening new reality of a world that exposes her confinement as such, but at the same time a world rich in potential growth. It is both exhilarating and terrifying, combining explosive new vision and great risk.

I was intrigued by your talk [at the Affirmation conference] when you spoke of the need of chaos. That is the last thing on earth the church would have its members experience. They choose the cocoon of safety and warn of the dangers of chaos with too much intellectual probing. This woman I see is on the brink of chaos. I liked your thought of her reaching down to the dove…the Holy Ghost perhaps, wounded? Dead? I see that possibility. This spirit is the victim of abuse of extremism and lies, used to create a false haven for the faithful. The moving of our souls by the Holy Spirit I read as an emotional response to stimuli. That could be a church meeting, a symphony, a painting, an emotional connection to another. But it must always be seen as a multiple experience including perhaps all of the above and always mysterious, certainty being precluded. The woman down in grief perhaps not yet knowing that spirit will yet be found again.

Also, abuse of the spirit now reaches to the crucified figure which could be Jesus floating away from the cross, and the abominations perpetrated in his name. At last free from distortion and unspeakable acts of the faithful, the pain floats away also in the spikes and thorns embedded in the resin at the ends of the cross. It could also suggest our suffering which I believe is the huge attachment that we have to the image, one so deliberately shunned by the Protestant tradition including Mormons.

The abstract nature of inner suffering which I believe to be the greatest, is implied by the double symbol of a three dimensional and colourless form of a bronze imposed over a painting. And above the red cross the light, always suggesting hope and transition, beams as an abstract form. But within this work I have the feeling absolute light or dark hardly exist.

The title comes from the notion of light that is shrouded in confusion or delusion or dogma. It is named light but generates dark. How? By making claims that have broken the souls of humans from time immemorial, by cruel domination and frequent horror, physical springs first to mind but the prison of false faith is universal. Yet the work is positive: in the rebirth of the woman, the releasing of the lie of Jesus or us from the cross, by the light form and gold leaf, the floating forms of torture and pain…the work is essentially optimistic and for me implies enlightenment.”

There is something about seeing a great piece of visual art, or a great performance, in person. That is the only way to capture what we can of its emotional resonance.

I am grateful we have people like Trevor Southey who pour their hearts and souls into work like “Dark Light”. They are our prophets. Oh that it were possible to get them a bit more “tithing” so that they would have greater liberty to do what they feel most inclined toward.

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