We got to know a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recently. His name is Ryan Snarr, and he shared with us some of his drawings that he creates each General Conference. During each session, Ryan quickly sketches each speaker between musical numbers, and it’s become something of a tradition for him. Ryan was gracious enough to allow us to feature some of his sketches, and sat down with us for a short Q&A. Following are some excerpts from our interview:
Q. Tell us a little about yourself, where are you from?
I grew up in Layton, UT, and attended Northridge High School. I served a mission in Lima, Perú. I got back from my mission in 1999, so, 15 years ago now. My current calling is singing second tenor in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I have a wife and 4 kids, we live in Syracuse, UT. My day job is working as the Marketing director for Destination Homes in Layton, UT.
Q. Tell us about singing in the choir. How long have you been in?
I’ve been in the choir for almost seven and a half years.
Q. What’s your favorite part about your calling?
Every week we get together as part of a performance or a rehearsal, and it’s just this massive group of people that all come together to create something like nothing else on earth. Not one single person can create it on their own, but as everyone comes together we’re able to make something amazing. You can share feelings through the medium of music that you just can’t share in any other way.
Singing is obviously the best part and most prominent part of this calling, but there are other things I’ve enjoyed that have been less expected. Every other year we go on tour, and one of my favorite things to do while we’re touring, outside of singing, is to go running in the cities we tour. To be able to get up early and go on an hour long run with other choir members is really nice. We don’t get much time to talk when we’re rehearsing and performing, so it’s nice to have that time to just talk and get to know people. It’s fun to find out what fellow members of the choir enjoy doing outside of being in the choir. I’m also surprised at how much I really enjoy singing the patriotic hymns while touring in different US cities. You know, the songs we all sang in the 3rd grade. It’s funny, because I didn’t like them in the 3rd grade, but when you’re singing for strangers in a place far from home who have the same conviction to country and patriotism as you do, it’s pretty cool.
Q. What made you want to audition for the choir, is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
Not exactly, though I’ve sung in choirs throughout my adult life. I had a neighbor who was going to audition, and we were signing in a group together. I just got really curious, and I thought, if he’s going to try, then I will too. My sister sang in the choir at the time, so I already had a connection on the inside. It was an intriguing idea to be able to sing with my sister. We sang together for probably two years before she got married and moved to California.
Q. Just a curious question, who picks out the choir’s ties for General Conference?
Ha ha, no one’s ever asked me that. Most people ask who picks out the women’s dresses. There are actually 11 ties that the men wear, and I don’t have a favorite. We just wear whatever they tell us to wear. I don’t know who decides. My guess is the women decide what they are going to wear first and then they tell the men which tie to wear that matches.
Q. When did you start making these sketches?
My first red pencil sketches were during a CD recording. During a recording there’s a lot more downtime than normal, but it’s silent downtime. Recording music for CDs involves many more moving pieces so they encourage us to bring something quiet to do like read a book. I brought paper and pencils and just started drawing whatever came to mind. I’ve always enjoyed drawing since I was little. Since I’m one of those guys who is prone to dozing off in church, I just need to do something to keep my eyes open and my mind going. It’s a terrible feeling getting drowsy during conference when you’re one of the participants so doing anything possible to stay alert is important to me. The first conferences I would just sketch random observations, but I’d get frustrated if my mind went blank as to what I should draw. To avoid this I just decided to try capturing the likeness of a speaker while they spoke; sort of a little challenge for myself. In the choir loft, we watch the conference sessions on flat screen televisions. They aren’t too big and they are positioned way down in front which is why they aren’t seen during the choir musical numbers. I’m typically about 15-25 feet away from a screen, and for the most part I’m fortunate enough to have an unobstructed view of the TV. It’s really dimly lit in the choir loft though. That, coupled with the distance from the screen can present a challenge. I’m lucky to have good enough eyesight to see okay I guess. Another challenge is sketching someone from straight ahead when the camera angle on each speaker moves to a ¾ view of their face numerous times during the talks. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to draw the ¾ view, but typically the camera angle shown most of a speaker is from straight ahead.
Q. You mention sketching keeps you from dozing off, is that the only reason you sketch these speakers?
The more I’ve studied art and drawing the more I’ve learned that it’s not just a natural talent that you have, but it’s something you must continually practice. A few years ago, I really felt like I hadn’t been giving this ability the attention it needed if I wanted to get any better or if I was going to take it somewhere. I started looking for more opportunities to practice. It’s a very quiet thing to do, so during general conference it was just the perfect thing to do to pay attention, and keep me from dozing off or visiting with my neighbor.
Q. Who’s your favorite to draw out of the speakers?
Well, the first presidency I’ve drawn the most just because they speak at every conference. Elder Christofferson is fun to draw, Elder Scott and Elder Nelson are favorites. It’s usually the people that have really distinguishing facial features. If you can just include their most recognizable features, people get who it is. For some reason, President Uchtdorf is really hard to draw, and Elder Bednar turns out really inconsistent and random sometimes.
Q. What do you do with all of these sketches, Do you keep them?
What I do after conference is I’ll scan or take a picture of the sketches and put them on Facebook and my illustration blog. People will see me in the grocery store before conference and they’ll say, “Are you going to post your sketches?” It’s become a personal tradition ever since I’ve been in the choir.
Q. Have any of the general authorities ever seen these?
I don’t know. Maybe. I have the opportunity to work on the birthday committee in the choir. We had this gift idea for President Eyring that didn’t end up working out, so we had to put together a plan B. Someone suggested that I draw something for him. so we purchased a moleskine drawing notebook, because in his biography it shows many of his sketches over the years. So I gave him the notebook with red and blue pencils, some pens, and some grayscale markers. I took some of my sketches from conference, cut them out, and pasted them in the front and back cover of this book just to make it kind of special, you know. I created a little note that explained that all the sketches pasted in the book were from conference sessions. Hopefully it inspired him to keep sketching.
Q. What do you use to do your sketches?
We don’t take much up to the choir loft for performances or conference, so I only take 3 sharpened red pencils. After 3 sessions of conference that usually takes up all the lead. They get pretty dull after two hours, and they’re all I have. My left hand is going the whole time until I can get something that I can make sure is a semblance of the speaker. Sometimes I’ll sketch the whole time and think, “Oh my, that turned out terrible.”
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
It’s a funny thing, because I’m characterizing people that are called of God, giving messages of faith, and for some it could come across as sacrilegious, but that’s certainly not my intent. For me it’s about capturing a moment. I’ll write notes to the side of each speaker, and I retain what I write, and what I hear. After six hours of participating in conference sessions over two days, I don’t just have notes, but I have this illustrated notebook that I can share with people. It’s a way to hang onto this moment that is special to me. It’s very satisfying finding out how special it is for others as well.
All images © Ryan Snarr