“And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?” Luke 16:1

Raised in a small Pennsylvania Dutch community surrounded by farms and the Mennonite faith, Samantha Joy Groff’s work features animals, plants, and female subjects enmeshed in a knot of competing desires. Her practice pits the conservative values of the Pennsylvania Dutch against contemporary ideals of wealth, family, and desire through the female experience. Drawing on the history of rural painters like Andrew Wyeth and Grant Wood, her paintings resist their austere color palettes, stoic figures, and ubiquitous pastoral landscape compositions. Instead, the work indulges in extreme emotional affect, off-kilter colors, and sensual body/land entanglements. 

In True Riches, Groff investigates traditional Mennonite suspicion of worldliness, a term used to designate attitudes, tendencies, and behavior influenced by the "world”––the evil system of life and conduct opposed to Christ. The idea of the world is used frequently in this sense in the New Testament: Paul (Galatians 1:4) described Christ's saving work as a deliverance "from this present evil world." Jesus said (John 17:16) that His disciples "are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." Groff explores this resistance to modern influences within her extended Mennonite family, and how over the last two decades, she has noticed the world slowly seeping into an otherwise closed community. 

Inspired by a recent trip to Kentucky to visit her cousins, the works in True Riches are based on Groff’s experience during a working holiday spent on their farm to ease the burden of caring for their land in exchange for meals, quality time, and collaborative portrait sessions with her family. Groff observed how her cousins, now young women aged 18 and 21, are beginning to make decisions that will impact the rest of their lives, while under the confinement of their religious upbringing.

Groff’s paintings feel strange because there is no precedent, that she knows of, for representational art in Mennonite tradition. Her figures live simultaneously in a past, present, and somewhere in-between; a push/pull between a modern existence and traditional modes of Mennonite experience. The history of Mennonite art has largely been non-representational and strictly functional, often relegated to the category of craft––quilts, furniture, book making, and bible folk art. Groff draws from traditional depictions of divinity, while resisting ornate iterations of Catholic saints that are often cast in opposition to Mennonite faith. True Riches contends with creating contemporary Christian artwork within a historical culture that refuses idolatry of any kind. 

Inspired by Mannerist figuration, Groff’s subjects’ elongated limbs and brittle-thin necks indulge in an ambiguity between who these young women are, where they come from, and what they want for their futures. Their downcast stares, coquettish sideways gazes, and subtle sexuality bump up against the modesty of their community and a notion of working-class survivalism, where the body is used to make a living through manual labor. For Groff, the neck becomes an invitation into indulgence, even though her figures do not meet viewers' eyes. The rubbery limbs and false nails indicate a fantasy set in opposition to the realism of the figures portrayed, to symbolize the desire for certain feminine qualities that are negated by the physical labor required in an agriculture industry. Even the animals depicted have an elastic quality that would make them unfit to keep on a working farm. 

Here, Groff alludes to an undercurrent of desire for true riches, whatever they may be, to explore the clashing of worldliness and individual expression with purity and faith. The work investigates striving towards an unknowable future (heaven), and a confrontation of the reality of the world with its infinite temptations. Groff offers us an intimate glimpse into a community, despite still herself lacking access that comes with being a devout member of the Mennonite faith.  What is revealed is the artist’s own ambiguous yet emotional relationship to her shortcomings of faith, set against a backdrop of works that are grounded in earthly existence.