What is Mormon Culture and what type of art does it create?
No, I don’t plan on tackling that question in this small of a space, but a few places around town might help you rethink Mormon culture. Oftentimes, Mormon culture is associated with a time capsule impression of the American mind in the 1950s: a cuisine based on mass produced consumer products such as Jell-O; a fashion sense confined to a short-sleeve white shirt, tie and dark polyester pants regardless of the weather; and a lifestyle solidly anchored in nine-to-five, two-car garage suburban living. The art published in the church’s official magazine, the Ensign, often times (but not always) reflects and encourages this stereotype, with impressionistically touched narrative paintings of the Bible and glowing landscapes with a Thomas Kinkaide touch.
But then there’s the Gilgal Garden in Salt Lake City. The creation of a Mormon bishop and professional mason, the Gardens is one of the most unique sculpture gardens you’ll find . . . well, anywhere. The garden contains twelve original sculptural arrangements and over seventy stones engraved with scriptures, poems, and philosophical texts. But these are not sculptures of happy families, father swinging young daughter around. The sculpture garden is a post-modernist amalgamation, done at a time when modernism was still modern and had yet to be posted – and I doubt its creator, Thomas B. Child, had heard of either. It is a permanent installation, a combine ala Rauschenburg and a unique quirky vision akin to Simon Rodia’s Watt’s Tower or the Palais Ideal of Facteur Cheval.
Child was the master planner of the Garden and directed the formation of the artwork, not unlike the old time masters and even some of the contemporary big names. Utah sculptor Maurice Edmund Brooks carved the features on the most well known sculpture, a sphinx-like work with the facial features of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Brooks used an oscyacteylne torch to do this, an innovation of Child’s. The torch, normally used for cutting steal, removes the waste rock and fuses the surface of the remaining stone, giving it a polished look.
The vision of this one man has now become a city park. Appropriately enough, the garden backs up against the Chuck-o-Rama parking lot, and I think there is no better emblem of the Mormon culture than that culinary establishment where you will find scones, ice cream, zucchini bread, funeral potatoes, Jell-O and all the other treats common to Ward parties. It was my grandmother’s favorite eatery. She used to love to point out the picture of 19th-century polygamist convicts at the Sugarhouse prison. The one dressed in civvies, she would tell me, was her grandfather, who was a gardener. We later found out she was mistaken. The man in the picture was a prison guard and not her grandfather. But we didn’t have the heart to demolish her cherished notions. If you’re willing to take you own preconceptions of Mormon art in hand, visit Salt Lake City’s Gilgal Garden for a stroll through a unique imagination.
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UTAH’S ART MAGAZINE SINCE 2001, 15 Bytes is published by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.