Rosalynde Welch of the Maxwell Institute’s new advisory board introduces our latest book, One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, which is officially released today.
Five years ago this fall, Utah County commuters saw something exotic along the suburban streetscape: billboards advertising nothing at all. Instead, the giant signs serialized a poem, “Small Prayer,” a piece as intimate and suggestive as billboards are public and flagrant. Artist Ashley Mae Hoiland took the rhetorical form of the billboard and turned it inside out. The result was a quiet revolution for anybody who bothered to look out the window.
Hoiland’s new project, a memoir titled One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, launches today, the latest in the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. At first blush, the book seems a departure from the large-scale. collaborative public art installations that have been Hoiland’s chosen vehicle in the past. This book, by contrast, is diminutive and personal, composed of dozens of fractured miniatures that recount, kaleidoscope-like, themes from Hoiland’s spiritual and artistic journey as a Latter-day Saint woman, mother, and artist. Her own line drawings of varied relational groups accompany the text.
A closer read shows Hoiland working with the same unexpected inversions of scale that defined her earlier work. The book may be modestly proportioned, both in its physical presence and its reflective tone, but it tackles a flock of themes as numerous as the hundred birds of its title, and does so with candor and nerve. The pages touch on the author’s sometimes uneasy encounter with gender culture in the Church, and on her thirst for women’s voices on earth and in heaven.
And on her relief missions to the margins of our community, whether as a young proselytizing missionary in Uruguay or as an open-hearted seeker in Provo, Utah.
On her gentle wrestles with faith and faithfulness, her account of which deftly sidesteps the fraught language of crisis and trauma that too often crowds our discussions of doubt.
On our human belonging in the natural world, and on the grace to be found in the earthly wild.
On the soul-abrading experience of motherhood, which she explores with great tenderness and great vulnerability.
And on the power of art to build community from the blocks of shared attention that are every artist’s truest medium.
It is the latter that most captivated me. As I read, I thought of dozens of people I know who would resonate with aspects of Hoiland’s experience. I mentally populated her faceless figure drawings with my own family and friends. But for my part, it’s the art that has it. Her accounts of the inventive, inspiriting public art events she conceived—from an exhibit of portraits in an Uruguayan civic space, to an installation of seed packets spelling out the word GROW in a rundown streetcorner, to a simple fabric banner of encouragement placed with care near a college campus—delighted and moved me beyond my expectation.
Hoiland does not work in the grand Western tradition of “capital A” Art that prizes the originality of the artist’s original vision above all. Neither her language, a lyrical, writerly idiom reminiscent of Terry Tempest Williams or Annie Dillard, nor her themes, which cover much of the territory of moderate Mormon feminism that has developed in reflective corners of the LDS internet, are strikingly original, though they are brought together with freshness and delight. Rather, Hoiland’s achievement is best understood as a finely worked performance, one that sensitively interacts with the reader’s expectations and acknowledges the “one hundred birds” that shaped her own generous sensibilities.
The authority Hoiland claims is thus rooted in collaboration, community, and charity. It is a personal authority, deliberately local in scope—north American Mormon women’s experience—persuasive in character, and exploratory in method. It is authority that is slow to proclaim itself as such, but make no mistake: it is authoritative. Yet it seeks no confrontation with ecclesiastical authority. In contrast to some Mormon feminisms, a few of which have defined themselves (and been defined) explicitly in opposition to ecclesiastical authority, Hoiland brings only patience, peace, and an unblinking eye for beauty to her interactions with Church structure and discourse.
Indeed, her name and the authority it claims shares a small page with the logo of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, named for one of the most revered agents of apostolic authority to Latter-day Saints in the twentieth century. Apostolic authority is centered, not marginal; commissioned, not improvised; explicitly public, not private; global in intention, not local. Apostolic authority is, in its rhetorical character though emphatically not its content, not unlike a billboard, in fact. In this sense, One Hundred Birds might be read as another kind of billboard project, in which Hoiland enlists a powerful rhetorical vehicle to accomplish a complementary kind of work, investing the public and private in one another’s care to serve the community that encompasses both.
Elder Maxwell once wrote, “When we rejoice in beautiful scenery, great art, and great music, it is but the flexing of instincts acquired in another place and another time.” I think he’d sense those airborne instincts in this little book. The author has my gratitude for drawing another beautiful corner of human experience into the pale of Mormon experience. You’ll want to sit in it awhile.