Book Reviews | Visual Arts

Painting on Hallowed Ground: An exhibition and publication explore the landscapes of the Mormon Trail 

John Burton, a California artist based in Carmel, was drawn to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by reading the accounts of his Mormon pioneer ancestors. So it seems fitting that, shortly after converting to the church his family had been absent from for a generation, Burton was drawn to chronicle the Mormon Trail in paint — an artistic version of the popular practice in LDS communities called “trek,” in which groups of adults and teenagers re-create an arduous experience based on the wagon trains and handcart companies that crossed the American plains.

Burton invited fellow painters Bryan Mark Taylor, of Alpine, and Josh Clare, of Cache Valley, to join him. A journey that for the pioneers generally lasted 10- 12 weeks took the painters three years to explore artistically. They traveled the Mormon Trail in spurts, snatching time away from family and professional responsibilities as they documented the landscape in all kinds of weather and during various seasons. All three speak of the endeavor in terms of consecration, referring to parts of the trail as hallowed ground and remarking on the spiritual moments they experienced as they formed connections with their inherited history, as well as each other. It turns out all three had ancestors, either among the rescuers or among the rescued, in the ill-fated Martin handcart company.

The trio embarked on their trek without patronage: they had neither financial backers nor a planned exhibition venue for the finished work. In that respect, as in others, it was an act of faith. It seems, at least in retrospect, that the only really fitting venue for the exhibition would be where it ended up—the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, where Saints at Devil’s Gate: Landscapes Along the Mormon Trail opened in November. Featuringmore than 50 paintings by the artists, the exhibit is curated by Laura Allred Hurtado, Global Acquisitions Curator of Art in the LDS Church History department. When she learned about the artists’ project, she felt it was “potentially rich” from a curatorial perspective, fitting as it did the museum’s “unique institutional mission, which blends history with art in ways that are at times precarious and tricky.” The exhibit is accompanied by a handsome, soft-bound catalog published by the Church Historian’s Press, which over the past several years has been concerned principally with publishing the Joseph Smith Papers — this is the first art publication at the museum in over two decades.

Weaving through three rooms of the newly redesigned museum, Saints at Devil’s Gate has been organized with the paintings oriented along the east-west flow of the Mormon Trail, the first paintings from Nauvoo and the last above the Salt Lake Valley. The artists’ works are close enough in style that they blend together well along this trajectory, though by journey’s end their individual approaches may be more apparent. In the catalog, introductory essays by Allred and Church History Museum historian Bryon C. Andreasen establish the conceptual framework for the exhibit and an interview among Allred and the artists functions as a coda. The bulk of the 140-page publication, however, is devoted to the paintings, some of which do not appear in the exhibit. These are paired with extracts from pioneer journals—selected by Andreasen, who scoured tens of thousands of primary sources to find quotes to match the subjects depicted—along with the occasional historical, curatorial or artistic note.

As Burton pointed out during a pre-exhibition press conference, “the pioneers did not take the scenic route.” They were interested, rather, in the fastest path, with the easiest river crossings and the most-abundant necessary resources. Which meant for the 70,000 or so Mormons who came to Utah before the completion of the transcontinental railroad that much of the 1,300 mile trek consisted of sagebrush, prairie grass and sky  punctuated by the occasional stream or oasis of trees. Landscape painters, by contrast, sustain themselves on scenes with dynamic design elements, places like the substantial Scott’s Bluffs in Nebraska, or Wyoming’s Devil’s Gate, a gorge on the Sweetwater River which all three artists painted. These locales provide rich fodder for the artists and were important landmarks for the pioneers as well, serving as they did as major milestones along the journey. A place like Chimney Rock, which Martha Bartlett Sessions described in an 1847 journal as “a cliff of sand looking like a tomb,” was a regular camping spot, a place where, as another journal excerpt indicates, pioneers could see the names of their predecessors etched in the stone. It is a natural draw for the eyes of both a pioneer and an artist. Taylor chose to place the iconic form to the far right of one his canvases, balancing it on the other side with a blue-roofed barn. Burton, by contrast, has it rise center stage, framed by a dramatic sky and snow-clad sagebrush.

A map included in the exhibition catalog shows that most of the scenes were painted in geographic clumps, where the landscape was the most dramatic. These are the paintings that will attract most visitors. Other scenes, especially those painted in Iowa and Nebraska, are more routine—an anonymous river bottom or stand of trees that could have been painted almost anywhere—but for many visitors these will be made poignant by the stories they reference. Those unconcerned with the historical context may find the most intriguing works to be the ones of technical interest, paintings where the artists have been pushed by the monotony of the plains to create compelling scenes through use of dramatic skies, elevated perspectives or uniquely cropped foregrounds. The flow of the exhibition does help a viewer understand the dramatic change of scenery experienced by the pioneers, from the verdant fields along the Mississippi, to the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Rocky Mountains.

In her introductory essay, Hurtado adroitly contextualizes the project, speaking of the exhibition as an “idealization of the trail, showcasing the highlights and removing the mundane,” and as a “mix of professional practice and religious tribute.” In his press conference, Burton stressed that each of the artists is a “plein air painter” (a panel at the beginning of the exhibition displays dozens of pencil sketches and oil studies used to create the finished work in the studio), and as such one would expect that the driving concerns for these artists were aesthetic rather than conceptual. And they are. The paintings are skillfully executed landscape scenes displaying a full range of techniques to increase visual impact. Snow, for instance, appears frequently in these works, even though they create what Andreasen calls “seasonal dissonance”—pioneers purposely left early enough to avoid winter storms, and while a few companies ran into snowstorms during the westernmost leg of the journey they never would have encountered them in the East. But snow is a great design tool for painters, providing as it does swatches of white and blue on terrains dominated by earth colors.

The interview with the artists included at the end of the catalog does show them working through conceptual ideas for the exhibition, incorporating their professional practice into a religious tribute. They chose to approach the exhibit as documentarians, depicting the trail as it looks today rather than creating a dramatization of what the trail would have looked like a century and a half ago: i.e., there are no wagon trains or recently dug graves. Josh Clare’s painting of “Winter Quarters” shows a street scene in today’s north Omaha. Indications of modern roads pop up in other scenes, and the barn in Taylor’s painting of “Chimney Rock” certainly came after the handcarts. These highlights of contemporary America are the exception rather than the rule, however. For the most part, the scenes depicted are of pristine landscapes. They are painted in a straightforward manner, the act of religious devotion arising less from what is seen on the canvas and more from the backstory of the location. Burton, in this respect, is an exception, his religious devotion coming to the fore in works like his painting of Ayres Natural Bridge in Wyoming, which he has chosen to paint at night, the three campfires beneath the natural span an obvious religious symbol.

Andreasen’s work as a historian is important in anchoring these paintings in a historical and cultural narrative. He says that in the case of this exhibition, history plays a supporting role to art, and many of the journal entries give us the pioneers’ perspectives on the same landscapes chosen by the painters. They also provide us with a broader understanding of the pioneer experience, which was not all hardship and travails. Josh Clare’s depiction of the rounded form of Independence Rock is an appropriately sedate image for a landmark that was frequently a place to camp and rest. It was also a tourist site. Sarah Maria Mousley’s journal entry from 1857 describes climbing the summit to get a view of the surrounding countryside and Rachel Woolley’s company was hoping to use it for a dance. In Mormon culture, the pioneer experience is most commonly understood through the prism of the handcart companies, and even more narrowly through the two most dramatic ones: the Willie and Martin companies. But as Andreasen has pointed out, the handcarts operated for only four of the 22 years the Mormon Trail was in use—there were only 10 handcart companies in total, two of which ran into trouble. Most pioneers came in wagon trains and the death rate for these companies was only slightly higher than life east of the Mississippi. Though crossing the plains was a life-changing experience, most of the pioneers did it without incident.

Idealization is something we inevitably succumb to when memorializing historic events. We have little attention for detail and almost none for drudgery, so our understanding of history focuses on individual dramatic moments. It is a temptation for both the painter and the historian: In John Burton’s view of “Devil’s Backbone,” the artist shows one of the unique geologic formations that give the location in central Wyoming its name, thrust upwards towards the skies, in a dramatically-lit, stormy ski, crackling lightning in the distance. But whenever I drive through central Wyoming I’m totally bored. If your neighbor knows of a pioneer ancestor, it’s likely one who lost life or limb at Martin’s Cove. In my own bloodline there are at least a dozen ancestors who crossed the plains, but the one I know about? He was struck by lightning while ferrying people across the river at Winter Quarters.

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