The voice of an artist

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Photo credit: Grace Wride

2020 was filled with as much turmoil and upheaval for painter Rebecca Jessee as it was for everyone else.

Yet, in the midst of the uncertainty that was triggered by the unprecedented global pandemic, something remarkable happened in Jessee’s life.

“As I was painting during the year 2020, everything was really eventful,” Jessee said. “The events that happened in (the Book of Nephi) reflected some of the things that were happening in my own community. It was wild.”

The paintings Jessee was creating were for her art project, titled “The Book of Nephi,” a series of paintings and portraits that portray notable scenes from the pages of the Book of Mormon.

Anyone who has read the Book of Mormon will be familiar with its story of a patriarch and prophet named Lehi who flees the ancient city of Jerusalem during the time of King Zedekiah around 600 B.C.

But according to Jessee, even people who aren’t familiar with Lehi’s story can relate to certain elements of his family’s experience, thanks to the calamity of 2020.

“Even though these stories are about people who lived thousands of years ago, it really felt like they were people who I lived with, who experienced similar things that I was experiencing in my life,” Jessee reflected. “It really showed me the power of the scriptures.”

The first painting in the series is beautifully organized and filled with symbolism.

Titled “The Family Flees,” based on the aesthetic structure of Egyptian hieroglyphs, it depicts six people, all members of one family, whose priorities and focus tend toward different directions.

While the prominent figures of Lehi; his wife, Sariah; and the younger sons, Nephi and Sam, face forward, the artwork carefully depicts the elder brothers, Laman and Lemuel, with their faces set in the opposite direction, back toward Jerusalem and the life they were leaving behind.

Jessee began to entertain the idea for this particular painting back in 2017.

“(At that time,) there was a lot of conversations about immigrants and refugees, which is just a title for people who are in danger,” Jessee explained. “I have friends who are from different countries who came here because (their country) was just unsafe for them. I thought that maybe if I share (Nephi’s) story through this painting, other people will see how it relates to refugees and immigrants. Maybe they can begin to see them more as people and less as labels.”

However, as 2020 began to wind its perilous course through the world, the painting series suddenly expanded in the scope of its application.

“I felt like a lot of people in my community probably would better resonate with Nephi and his family leaving Jerusalem,” Jessee said. “But as I kept painting, 2020 unfolded just as I painted.”

The artwork in “The Book of Nephi” includes depictions of the marriage of Nephi to the daughter of Ishmael, titled “Blessed of the Lord in Marriage.” Jessee herself was married shortly before beginning work on the project and was a newlywed at the time of the painting.

Other paintings in the series include depictions of the mothers in Lehi’s family attending to their children, titled “Feeding Children in a Desert”; a conversation between Nephi and his brothers about prayer, titled “Have You Inquired of the Lord?”; and the natural death of Lehi, titled “Death of a Patriarch.”

“Because 2020 was so eventful, as I was doing different images, different things were happening,” Jessee recalled. “It was alarming to me that where I was in this series landed right with what was going on in the news. For example, the incident where Laman and Lemuel beat Nephi and Sam (titled “Brother Fighting Against Brother”), I was working on that one right when the Black Lives Matter riots happened. At the time, it was clear to me that this painting was similar; these brothers are fighting.”

“A Family Separating,” the final piece in the series, was also painted at an interesting intersection of art and global events.

“I painted that one after the January 6 riots,” Jessee said, pointing out how the division between members of our country was mirrored in the piece.

Jessee and her husband, Ben, displayed “The Book of Nephi” in Rexburg on the evening of Nov. 5 at the Romance Theater.

David Miller, from the Computer Information Technology Department at BYU-Idaho, attended the showing.

“What impressed me was how (Jessee) really connected with each one of her pieces,” Miller said. “In my conversation with her, I brought up two or three that I noticed as I walked the room. As she talked about each, she lit up as if she was speaking about a child she was proud of. There are a lot of feelings and emotions that have been represented in these works.”

“The Book of Nephi” is available for viewing and purchase online through Jessee’s Instagram and her website. Interested buyers should contact Jessee by sending her a direct message through Instagram.