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New Mormon Trail Art Exhibition Opens at the Church History Museum

A new exhibition titled Saints at Devil's Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail will open at the Church History Museum on Thursday, November 17, 2016, and run through August 2017.

The exhibition, which has been more than five years in the making, features 52 paintings by LDS artists John Burton, Josh Clare, and Bryan Mark Taylor and depicts the beautiful landscapes along the Mormon Trail with accompanying excerpts from pioneers' own accounts or journals.

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Image from Mormon Newsroom

While many Latter-day Saints may be more familiar with the suffering and sorrow of the pioneers, the exhibition brings museum visitors on the pioneers' visual journey, which included beauty, adventure, and discovery. The paintings are also organized so that the viewer follows the geographical movement westward as they make their way through the exhibit.

The landscapes, purposely lacking human forms, are created to allow viewers to experience the Mormon pioneer trail as if they are seeing it on their own, they way the pioneers experienced it.

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"Praise Ye His Name"
Painting by Josh Clare near Casper, Wyoming, as part of a collection of plein air landscapes of the Mormon Trail. Image from Mormon Newsroom

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"Wonders of His Love"
Painting by John Burton, as part of the collection. Image from Mormon Newsroom
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"This Too Shall Pass"
Painting by Bryan Mark Taylor. Image from Mormon Newsroom

Between 1846 and 1868, more than 70,000 pioneers traveled the Mormon Trail, extending 1,300 miles from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah. In an attempt to recreate a portion of their experience, the three LDS artists decided to visit and paint the landscapes the pioneers would have seen on their trek to the West.

"Burton, Clare, and Taylor approached the subject of the Mormon trail with a mix of professional practice and religious tribute," said museum curator Laura Allred Hurtado. "As they described their vision, words such as devotion, consecration, and conversion often emerged and they seemed to look at the land with what art historian David Morgan calls a 'sacred gaze.'"

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John Burton paints a landscape in the snow. Image from Mormon Newsroom

The artists painted along the trail rather than relying on pictures, and frequently returned to different sections to capture the landscapes in different circumstances and weather. Hurtado also explains, "The artists' work explored 19th-century modes of thought regarding the landscape as picturesque and sublime in ways that often mirrored the sentiments of Mormon pioneers as they crossed the plains."

John Burton shares that these paintings are more than scenery, however. The project was a spiritual experience for these artists, and it is shown in their work. "Coming into Salt Lake for the first time was probably the most moving experience we had. Many times on the trail, we felt like we were on hallowed ground." He continues, "the paintings, at least for me, all have a meaning, and I think for Bryan and Josh, other than just the obvious." 

For example, he shares that one picture, titled "Faith (All Is Well)," was painted in the place where William Clayton penned the words "all is well." The painting depicts a flock of birds in winter sky, above a scattering of sparse trees. He explains, "This was my dedication to everyone who passed on the trail. The birds represent the ascension to heaven, and as they do, as they go from cold, harsh winter they go to warm pinks at the top. And as they follow that path, they fade into eternity." 

Likewise, a painting depicting three campfires, called "You Are Never Alone," represents the Godhead.

The exhibit will run through August 2017 in the Church History Museum, and the artwork will also be available to view online on the Church History website following the exhibition's opening on November 17. 

Bryon C. Andreasen, who researched historical accounts for an accompanying book, Saints at Devil's Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail, explained the main purpose of the exhibition.

"If these paintings kindle in some a desire to slow down and take in the landscape, to exercise historical imagination while infusing the views with fresh, personal meaning, the exhibition will have been a success."

Lead image retrieved from Mormon Newsroom

Follow me to zion 5107121Read more about the pioneers in Follow Me to Zion: Stories from the Willie Handcart Pioneers, available at Deseret Book.

James G. Willie knew the trek would be arduous, but he could not have imagined all of the hardships along the way. Yet from this tragedy emerged triumphant stories of personal endurance, courage, heroism, and unwavering faith.

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