While spending the day with friends in Salt Lake City recently, I had the chance to visit a small park on the northeast side of the city at the base of university hill, just diagonal from Trolley Square. It’s called Gilgal Gardens, and it completely blew my mind.
As you walk through an iron gate set into a tall masonry wall, the first dominant image is a stone sphinx bearing the face of Joseph Smith, and that sets the tone for the rest of the tour. Before you’re done you’ve seen a massive (sacrificial?) alter stone, a representation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in size-mismatched pieces scattered over a hillside, a statue of a man (the park’s original patron, Thomas Child) whose pants are made of bricks, a (possibly Nephite) warrior with an unshaped block of stone for a head, and an odd little cave featuring two anatomically correct hearts (one red, one white) with two stone hands reaching down out of the cave’s ceiling. Passages from scripture, LDS hymns, and American political writings are carved into stones along the path.
From the moment I saw Joseph Sphinx, I knew I was witnessing a uniquely and wonderfully Mormon expression of faith that blended broadly Masonic symbology with vaguely Polynesian (or perhaps Central American) art aesthetics. It was the most intriguing blend of familiar and strange, deeply personal yet weirdly unsettling set of depictions I had ever seen. It both delighted and horrified me; a sort of symbolic fever dream of Mormon id run wild.
Perfectly comprehensible and even resonant at an intimate level while at the same time being utterly alien and strange. Nothing I could ever have produced, yet specifically relevant precisely because it touched so aggressively on dominant themes of my inner life.
Which is not to say that I liked each (or possibly any) individual piece. I found it all to be (at least) one step beyond, with each depiction stretching my appreciation just a little too far so that the experience was more absurd or horrific (though still powerful) than deep. And yet, it held my attention and spurred both analysis and contemplation, as all worthy art does.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with much of Western literary writing—and by extension, much of Mormon literary writing. I like the odd and quirky, yet I have very little patience with it over time. I love the alternative viewpoint, but want it to intersect with my own on more than one point before I can accept and internalize it. I value imaginative recasting of familiar ideas that help me see the old in a new light. I like to be challenged, argued with, forced to re-evaluate core assumptions and unconscious value judgments, though I’m not a big fan of stories set in the just-beyond-recent past (and please save me from the 1950s, which are now making their fourth comeback in my not-quite fifty years…).
The line is different for each of us, and many are deeply moved by those things I find weird, or deeply bored by those things I find fascinating. But even when I am not drawn by a piece, I can choose to appreciate and even admire the familiar mind (and heart and soul) behind a depiction that I have seen and understood very differently with my own interior eye.
Because some things are relentlessly ours despite excessive (or insufficient) flourish, regardless of setting in time or place or character. The dissonant can be useful precisely because it scrapes against an inner, private part of our deeper minds and challenges us to more closely examine our individually unique private heresies, and perhaps refine them just a bit.
No one should pretend to like something they find unlikeable. But appreciating a common core of experience or vision as we dispute the specific details of depiction, even—and perhaps especially—with those things that most challenge and alarm us. Tracing the familiar origin of the particularly bizarre or offensive is astoundingly useful in learning to see (and understand) the experience of others with charity. The things that touch us most deeply are often found in unfamiliar contexts or on foreign grounds.
But first, we have to take the chance, and hope that common experience can bridge us across some potentially profound perceptional divides. I’ve always found the effort useful, if not entirely pleasant or entertaining.
I know that Gilgal Gardens will now become an at-least-annual pilgrimage for me. Not because it soothes, but because it abrades in that personal, intimate way that only one of my own people can touch me. The very fact that real and powerful testimony can find expression in a way that is both intimate and alien makes it virtuous and of good report, even if I can’t claim to find it lovely.