Sculpting an LDS Tradition


Latter-day Saints have a remarkable sculptural tradition. And contemporary LDS sculptors are among the artistic leaders in America.

Unknown to the American public at large—and to most Latter-day Saints—is a magnificent legacy Latter-day Saint sculptors have created. The following traces our LDS sculptural tradition and lets us meet some of America’s most prominent living sculptors who also happen to be Latter-day Saints.

Nauvoo Period

Early Latter-day Saint sculpture consisted of architectural ornamentation, primarily symbols that conveyed the restoration of the gospel. The sunstones on the Nauvoo Temple are excellent examples of this early LDS sculpture. These elaborately carved stones symbolized heaven’s highest degree of glory. (See 1 Cor. 15:40–42.) They also symbolized the restoration of the gospel: the sun is depicted with two hands holding trumpets, signifying the proclamation to the world that knowledge and authority had been restored.

The Nauvoo Temple also included other sculpture: moonstones and starstones, which symbolized the other two degrees of heavenly glory; twelve oxen carved of stone, supporting the baptismal font; and a weathervane in the form of a flying angel.

The Nauvoo sunstones were carved by three English convert emigrants—William Warner Player, Charles Lambert, and Harvey Stanley. Almost all of the artists and craftsmen of the nineteenth-century church were European convert immigrants, usually from Great Britain or Scandinavia.

Pioneer Utah

The Eagle Gate in Salt Lake City, originally the entrance to Brigham Young’s farm, combines two important symbols: an eagle with outstretched wings (a popular American symbol) perched on a beehive (a Latter-day Saint symbol of hard work, cooperation, and order). The combination suggests loyalty to country and to the kingdom of God. This sculpture was originally carved in wood and was covered with thin copper.

Ralph Ramsey, the English convert-immigrant who created the Eagle Gate, also sculpted the beehive that was placed at the pinnacle of Brigham Young’s home. William Ward, another young convert from Great Britain, carved the stone sculpture of a reclining lion that sits above the door of the Lion House, another of Brigham Young’s homes. Perhaps the lion symbolized Brigham Young himself, sometimes called the “lion of the Lord.” It is also tempting to see in this sculpture the royal British symbol transferred to frontier Utah. What is perhaps Ward’s finest remaining piece is the elaborately carved stone sent from Utah for the Washington Monument in 1855. It skillfully expresses the rich symbolism of the early Restoration.

Another major piece of pioneer sculpture is the rising sun sculpted in the wooden gable of the old Salt Lake Tabernacle. That tabernacle stood on Temple Square on the present site of the Assembly Hall. This sculpture symbolizes the restoration of the gospel and the “dawning of a brighter day.” It was created at the Public Works, a collection of workshops established by Brigham Young next to the temple block to assist craftsmen in building the Salt Lake Temple, Tabernacle, and other Church projects. This sunburst is currently located in the permanent historical exhibit, “A Covenant Restored,” which opened 19 May 1990 at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City.

A more personal form of early Latter-day Saint sculpture is tombstones. Perhaps the finest tombstone in pioneer Utah was created by William Ward and his fellow craftsmen at the Public Works as a memorial to their coworker, Thomas Tanner, who died in an accident. Since Thomas Tanner was superintendent of the Public Works Blacksmith Shop, his tombstone includes a bas-relief carved by William Ward depicting blacksmith tools and an anvil. It is located in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

The New Century

The construction of the Salt Lake Temple marked both the beginning and the end of the pioneer period of the Church. The temple that was begun in 1853 while the pioneers were still living in wagon boxes, dugouts, and log cabins was completed after Salt Lake City had become a thriving American city. Original plans for the temple called for elaborately sculpted stones on the exterior, in the early tradition of architectural ornamentation and symbolism. However, the final finishing was simplified to representations of suns, moons, stars, clouds, clasped hands, and the “all-seeing eye.” The cloud stones, adorned with realistic clouds and rays of light breaking through them, symbolize the light of the restored gospel breaking through the clouds of darkness. Clasped hands appear above the doorways and symbolize brotherhood in the gospel and a link between heaven and earth. The “all-seeing eye” also appears above the doorways and reminds us that our daily activities should be done in righteousness under the watchful gaze of the Lord.

A weathervane of a flying angel was in the original plans for the Salt Lake Temple, to be placed atop the central spire; but when the building was completed forty years later, the design had been changed to a thirteen-foot-tall classical sculpture of the angel Moroni blowing his trumpet. Subsequent pieces of sculpture commissioned by the Church were also in this more classical style. Mahonri Young was one of the leading LDS sculptors in this academic style.

Mahonri Young (1877–1957). In 1877, just weeks before the death of his grandfather Brigham Young, Mahonri Young was born. He studied art in Paris, then spent most of his life living in New York City, with occasional trips back to the American West.

Mahonri was intent on making a contribution to the creation of a truly American art. He went a long way toward realizing that dream when the American Museum of Natural History sent him to Arizona and New Mexico to study the Indians of the Southwest. Out of that trip he created several groups of sculpture in bronze of Apache, Navaho, and Hopi Indians. He had a lifelong passion for depicting the American Southwest in sculpture, paintings, drawings, and prints. Another of his passions was the heroic nature of honest labor, and he often depicted the typical American working man.

But Mahonri Young also sought to memorialize the nobility and heroic nature of his own LDS background. Some of Salt Lake City’s most enduring monuments of LDS Church history are products of his great talent. On Temple Square stand his statues of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and his Sea Gull Monument, with bas-relief plaques on its base. To the east of the city stands his This Is the Place Monument, created in 1947 to celebrate the centennial of the entry of the pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. This monument is perhaps the most complex sculpture ever created to celebrate the history of the Church. The last major monument Mahonri Young created brought him back to his family roots. He was asked to sculpt a marble portrait of his grandfather, Brigham Young. This piece is on permanent exhibit in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Torlief Knaphus (1881–1965). Another sculptor who left major monuments celebrating the history of the Church was Norwegian-born Torlief Knaphus. As a child, he came to America with his parents and settled in the central Utah town of Richfield. Virtually his entire artistic career was spent commemorating Church history. He worked with Avard Fairbanks on the bas-relief frieze around the top of the Hawaiian Temple, and he created the friezes on the Alberta and Arizona temples. He also sculpted the baptismal font and oxen for the Alberta, Mesa, and Idaho Falls temples, and he worked with M. F. Malin on the baptismal font, oxen, and angel Moroni for the Los Angeles Temple.

Torlief also created the Handcart Pioneers Monument on Temple Square and sculpted the Hill Cumorah Monument, which stands atop Hill Cumorah and depicts the angel Moroni on top of a tall stone shaft, with bas-reliefs around the base illustrating the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Torlief Knaphus also helped Mahonri Young on the This Is the Place Monument.

Avard Fairbanks (1897–1987). Among the influential sculptors working during the first half of the twentieth century, Avard Fairbanks was perhaps the most precocious. His artistic vision not only brought him international acclaim but also created a perspective to which modern LDS sculptors could cling in the confusion that has characterized the art world during the later twentieth century. For LDS sculptors, Avard’s work culminated what came before and prefigured what would follow.

Born in 1897 to an artist father, Avard studied sculpture at age thirteen at the New York Art Students’ League with renowned sculptor James Earl Fraser. When Avard was fourteen, his work was exhibited in the National Academy of Design. At sixteen, he began his studies in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He later taught art at the Universities of Oregon and Michigan and organized the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah.

Avard’s monuments are scattered throughout the world. All are heroic and spiritual in nature, such as Tragedy at Winter Quarters, an LDS monument, and Lycurgus the Lawgiver, for which he was knighted by King Paul of Greece. His sculpture of Marcus Whitman, an early pioneer and missionary to the Oregon Territory, is exhibited in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, as are his statues representing prominent citizens of Wyoming and North Dakota. A colossal head of Abraham Lincoln sculpted by Avard in marble is also on permanent exhibit in the Capitol. He sculpted the angel Moroni statues for the Seattle, Mexico City, and Jordan River temples. Perhaps his finest temple sculpture is the frieze around the top of the Hawaiian Temple, which he did as a very young man.

Avard Fairbanks was not emotionally passive toward his subjects. He believed in expressing their heroic and spiritual qualities. He fought against the moral ambiguity, obtuseness, and hostility that infected much of later twentieth-century art and succeeded in convincing a new generation of LDS artists that the techniques of the past hold great promise for the future. When many art teachers were preaching “expression” to their students, Avard was preaching “accurate anatomy first.” As a teacher, he did his best to pass an attention to detail, sentiment, narration, and theme on to the next generation. Fairbanks’s students were in the enviable position of having been taught basic skills that many sculptors in an entire generation missed in their training. One of those students who learned from Fairbanks was Edward Fraughton.

Modern Times

Edward Fraughton (1939– ). The work of South Jordan, Utah, artist Edward Fraughton reflects a renewed emphasis on accuracy and technique. “One has to learn the ropes of technique before one can pull the strings of emotion,” he says. Edward’s LDS work includes busts of early Church leaders for visitors’ centers and the Mormon Battalion Monument in San Diego.

But his work extends far beyond the Latter-day Saint community. His bust of John F. Kennedy is in the Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. He has won four gold medals from the National Academy of Western Art (N.A.W.A.) and has had his work exhibited at the White House. The public television film series “Profiles in American Art” has featured his life and art. And his spirited optimism has created a heroic-sized bronze monument of a bucking horse and rider that stands in front of the Wyoming State Capitol. According to Ed Muno, art director of the N.A.W.A., “Ed Fraughton is clearly one of the best sculptors working today.”

Grant Speed (1930– ). LDS sculptor Grant Speed arrived at artistic acclaim almost by accident. He grew up in “cow country,” in San Angelo, Texas, and spent summers and his post-high-school years as a working cowboy. At age twenty-two, he attended Brigham Young University, joined the rodeo team, and made it to the national finals his first year. He served a mission to the Southwest, taught school after graduation, and continued doing a little rodeoing in the summers.

After a few years, multiple bronco-riding injuries stopped his rodeo days. And so he began to sculpt rodeo broncos and riders, using his young daughter’s modeling clay. He eventually took the pieces to a gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and several people ordered bronze casts of them. In 1965, Grant joined what is perhaps the most prestigious group of western artists in the U.S.—the Cowboy Artists of America. He has since served several times as president of the group and has won many prizes for his work. His commissions have included the full-size bronco and rider at Texas Tech University, as well as a sculpture of Buddy Holly located in Lubbock, Texas. Fellow artists recognize Grant as a man of deep character and quiet faith.

Stanley Wanlass (1941– ). LDS sculptors are not limited to celebrating nature and the American West. Stanley Wanlass has dedicated a great deal of his art to an important symbol of the man-made environment: the automobile. Stanley grew up working at his father’s gas station in Lehi, Utah, and did his BYU master’s thesis on the automotive emblem design—a thesis that was later published in New York. His bronze pieces of cars are recognized as among the foremost sculptures of automobiles. His automobile sculptures have a freshness, wit, and spontaneity that blend the maturity and skill of fine art with the delight of childhood. They have been displayed in museums from Los Angeles to Stuttgart, Germany.

Automobiles are not his only sculptural work; he has created many monumental public sculptures, most of which deal with history. One of his most significant is a monument at the Fort Clatsop National Memorial, commemorating the arrival of Lewis and Clark at the shores of the Pacific.

Clark Bronson (1939– ). Clark began his art career as a wildlife illustrator for the Utah Fish and Game Department—a position that combined his passion for nature and his interest in art. His work demanded meticulous attention to detail. After winning several national awards for his animal illustrations and publishing two books of his wildlife art, he began to teach himself the art of sculpture and bronze-casting. From the first, his bronze sculptures of wildlife were medal-winners. Clark’s love for nature has helped to make him one of the most collected wildlife sculptors in the world.

Concern for anatomical accuracy that captures muscular movement and a firsthand familiarity with his subjects contribute to Clark’s sensitive renderings of wildlife forms. “Art comes from living,” he says, reflecting his commitment to art filled with truth and life.

Oreland Joe (1958– ). American Indians have been an important subject for American sculptors for more than a century, but Oreland Joe, a Navajo/Ute member of the Church from Shiprock, New Mexico, brings a personal and spiritual quality to the theme few outside his culture have captured. This largely self-taught artist creates his works in alabaster from southern Utah. His style is somewhat reminiscent of that of Allenhauser, the great contemporary Apache artist.

Oreland’s favorite images are women and children together. This theme, in the hands of a less-talented and less-insightful artist, could easily become maudlin. But Oreland Joe’s work emits dignity and conveys great spiritual strength. Oreland’s works have an organic quality that comes from a very sensitive handling of native stone. The artist allows the stone to simplify the detail and help give even his small pieces a sense of monumentality. Faith and reverence characterize his work.

Dennis Smith (1942– ). Another contemporary LDS sculptor, Dennis Smith of Alpine, Utah, is best known to many of his fellow Latter-day Saints for his sculptures of women at the Nauvoo Visitors’ Center. Through these pieces, he celebrates both pioneer strength and contemporary womanly virtues. His style is impressionistic; his figures are modern, yet timeless.

Some of Dennis’s most charming pieces depict his fanciful dreams of childhood. His childhood-fantasy sculptures are a creative mixture of homemade “kid toys”—hayracks that become sailing ships and fantastic flying machines piloted by young boys. These sculptures express the hope, vision, creativity, and exuberance of childhood. They point to the future, while his pioneer pieces are grounded in the past.

And the past, after all, is what sets LDS sculptors apart from their contemporaries. Sometimes they refer to it subtly—in visionary reverence of the American West or in heroic monuments. At other times, they employ it directly. They may overlook tradition at times, but its influence is always there. In fact, much of the best of their art is like a frozen morality play, extolling values that give meaning to life—honor, courage, and freedom.

[photo] Sea Gull Monument, by Mahonri Young.

[photo] Joseph Smith, by Mahonri Young.

[photo] This Is the Place Monument, by Mahonri Young

[photo] Handcart Pioneers Monument, by Torlief Knaphus.

[photo] Tragedy at Winter Quarters, by Avard Fairbanks.

[photo] Legend, by Edward Fraughton.

[photo] The Half Breed, by Grant Speed.

[photo] New York to Paris ’08, by Stanley Wanlass.

[photo] Eagle’s Conquest, by Clark Bronson.

[photo] Love Song for Bluebird Woman, by Oreland Joe. (Copyright © Oreland Joe, reprinted from Beyond Tradition: Contemporary Indian Art and its Evolution, © 1988, Jerry and Lois Jacka, Northland Publishing, Flagstaff, Arizona.)

[photo] Concordia, by Dennis Smith.

Richard G. Oman is senior curator at the Museum of Church History and Art. He serves as chairman of the activities committee in the East Mill Creek Sixth Ward, Salt Lake East Millcreek Stake.