Saints at Devil’s Gate: New Exhibit Showcases Landscapes along Mormon Trail

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 29 November 2016

This Too Shall Pass, by Bryan Mark Taylor; Rocky Ridge, Wyoming; 2015, oil on canvas.  Image courtesy of LDS Church History Department.

Article Highlights

  • New exhibition features 52 recently painted Mormon Trail landscapes.
  • Its companion book is titled Saints at Devil’s Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail.

The title is a self-contained paradox: Saints at Devil’s Gate.

The paradox makes the title memorable, undoubtedly a reason it was selected for a new exhibition at the Church History Museum featuring 52 recently painted “landscapes along the Mormon Trail.” (Devil’s Gate in Wyoming is one of the most prominent landmarks along the trail.)

The works were glimpsed November 14 by invited guests attending a sneak preview of sorts for bloggers and other interested persons prior to the exhibition’s opening on November 17. Some joined the event via Skype.

At the same event, a companion art catalog book was introduced with the same title, Saints at Devil’s Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail. The book is the latest offering by the Church Historian’s Press, which, up to now, has focused almost exclusively on the publication of 13 volumes in the anticipated 26-volume set in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. An imprint of the Church History Department, the Church Historian’s Press has also published a book, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society.

Both the Joseph Smith Papers and the Relief Society book were directed primarily toward scholarly audiences; this latest offering marks the first foray of the Church Historian’s Press into publishing primarily for a general market, said Eric Smith, editorial manager. He noted that it is an opportunity to provide art with bits of history.

The book is available for purchase at the museum or through store.lds.org.

Both the book and the museum exhibition follow the trail geographically, featuring one or more quotes with each painting from some of the pioneers who were at the respective point on the trail.

Faith (All is Well) by John Burton, Locust Creek, Iowa; 2016, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of LDS Church History Department.

Streams of Mercy by Josh Clare; Mount Pisgah, Iowa; 2015, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of LDS Church History Department.

Remember to Look Up by John Burton; Chimney Rock, Nebraska; 2016, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of LDS Church History Department.

New Beginnings by John Burton; Salt Lake Valley, Utah; 2016, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of LDS Church History Department.

Laura Allred Hurtado, curator at the museum, said three artists worked on the project, creating their works between 2011 and 2016. That makes them contemporary paintings of historic sites on the 1,300-mile trail that Mormon pioneers traveled at separate times between 1846 and 1868 as they journeyed toward their homes in the Intermountain West.

Artist John Burton, whose work is featured along with that of Josh Clare and Bryan Mark Taylor, said the idea originated about seven years ago, when he felt prompted to do a show about the Mormon pioneers.

“I am a convert to the Church, and my conversion, though in the end, of course, is through the Holy Ghost, was based in a large part on pioneers,” he said, noting that he has pioneer heritage on both sides of his family, though his ancestors on either side fell away from the Church three generations ago.

He enlisted his colleagues to take five years of unpaid time to paint the sites along the trail. They used the plein air style, meaning they went on location and did studies, then did finished paintings in the studio. Most artists today paint from photographs.

“I and the artists who I worked with feel it is important to get your inspiration from the source rather than a photograph of the source,” he said. (Their preliminary sketches are featured as a mosaic pattern in the exhibition.)

“We would go at different times over the years to catch different weather, because the pioneers traveled during all seasons,” he explained.

“The pioneers did not take the scenic route; the pioneers took the flat route, the easiest route with water and wood, so it was a difficult challenge to try to paint a lot of these scenes and get the beauty and design of it when it isn’t given to you as an artist very easily. I think we were, in the end, successful with that.”

For example, he displayed his painting of the Locust Creek campsite in Iowa, where William Clayton wrote “Come, Come, Ye Saints” in 1846. It is not, by nature, picturesque. Brother Burton infused a spirit and vibrancy in his painting of it, though, by depicting a rosy sky with birds taking flight from the field.

Sister Hurtado said some of that sense comes from what is known as the Gettysburg approach, a phenomenon in which visitors to a historic site such as the Civil War battleground of Gettysburg come with an already existing understanding and appreciation of what happened there, even though there is little or nothing on the site to mark the historic event that occurred there.

“Coming into Salt Lake the first time off the trail was probably the most moving experience we had,” Brother Burton said. “Many times on the trail we felt we were on hallowed ground. … What an opportunity to share a story with others [who know little about the Church] and possibly help bring a testimony to them sometime in their lives.”

Bryon C. Andreason, the historian who selected quotes for the project, said it is important to remember this is primarily an art exhibit. “You’re not going to learn about the history of the Mormon Trail, per se, but history has a supporting role, an enrichment role, and suggests an additional lens that you can appreciate the art through.”

He said that for a historian like him, the experience was like being a kid in a candy shop.

“There were over 70,000 Mormon pioneers. Not all did journals or memoirs, but thousands of them did, so it was a daunting task to select quotations.”

Orienting the paintings to the story of the trail “was a detective adventure in itself,” he said.

“The filter I used was looking for ways in which the pioneers were reacting to the landscape they were seeing,” he said. “That helped to winnow down the things you could pick. Often it’s mundane; sometimes it’s seeing the beauty. Sometimes it’s optimistic; often it’s pessimistic. But how the landscape affected them as they traveled was an important lens.

Eric Smith of the Church Historian’s Press displays a new art book being published in connection with a new exhibition at the Church History Museum: Saints at Devil's Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

These Deeds Shall Thy Memorial Be by Josh Clare; North Platte River, near the Old Mormon Ferry, Casper, Wyoming; 2016, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of LDS Church History Department.

His Presence Will My Want Supply by Josh Clare; Ayres Natural Bridge, Wyoming; 2016, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of LDS Church History Department.

A panel in the exhibition Saints at Devil's Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail features art studies done by artists as they traveled along the Mormon Trail. Final paintings, also featured in the exhibition, were done from the art studies. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Bryon C. Andreasen, historian at the Church History Museum, discusses his role in providing text for the art book and exhibition Saints at Devil's Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

John Burton, one of three artists featured in the exhibition and art book Saints at Devil's Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail, displays the page in the book featuring his painting of the location where Mormon pioneer William Clayton wrote the words to “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Laura Allred Hurtado, curator at the Church History Museum, discusses the preparation that went into the paintings and the exhibition Saints at Devil's Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Wonders of His Love by John Burton; Red Butte, Wyoming; 2016, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of LDS Church History Department.