Monday, February 18, 2008

The Gilgal Sculpture Garden

I didn't write about Salt Lake City's Gilgal Sculpture Garden when I was here last year because I didn't know how I could do it justice: It's a bizarre little Mormon-themed public city park nestled in the middle of a quiet residential block created by a former Mormon bishop and masonry contractor-turned-sculptor.

Thomas Child started the 12 monumental pieces, including the grotesque sphinx with LDS founder Joseph Smith's face, in 1945 in what was then his backyard. Work stopped when he died in 1963 and the property became a public garden in 2000.

The 12 pieces vary in size and shape. One four-part sculpture (seen in the background above), involves a monolith topped with a wire representation of the angel Moroni, a stone arch, a stack of four giant stone books, and a purple boulder which was intended to be carved into a globe that would sit atop the books. Each piece has personal and Mormon symbolic meaning.

Much of the carving, including Joseph Smith's face, was done with an oxyacetylene torch -- a steel-cutting tool. According to the Garden's stewards, Child's son-in-law and assistant Bryant Higgs was "a pioneer in this sculpting method." Child also got assistance from Maurice Edmond Brooks, a local sculptor who did a lot of the church's sculpture. Brooks was the one who used the cutting torch to sculpt Smith's face on the sphinx.

As kitschy as Child's art is, it's also thoroughly modern and thoroughly Mormon. The piece above, a self-portrait and "monument to the trade," shows Child holding a set of blueprints and a bible against a background of stone and tools.

Child's art is remarkable because while it's well outside of the American Modern mainstream -- it may be best categorized as folk art -- it has a very mid-century modern feel to it, even as it seeks to interpret a strange and insular religious sect. It is, simply, Mormon modern art. But it wasn't the sort commissioned by the Church, and that's what's so interesting to me. It was made over nearly 20 years by a devout man who was moved to make it by his own very personal faith.

That's what makes folk art so much more captivating than much of our modern and contemporary canon. It is art made by untrained, uncompensated individuals who felt compelled to create inspite of their lack of artistic schooling and without the promise of an audience. It seems that much more pure when it's done outside of the neat confines of the academy and commerce.

Then again, it is quite amateurish. The Joseph Smith-faced sphinx is comically weird. The self-portrait with brick pants is endearingly naive. Maybe Child's art is so noteworthy merely because it's so big. Anything carved out of so many tons of stone is impressive. Add the Mormon dimension and the unconventional use of a cutting torch and you have a real story.

I like it. I've made this strange little garden a regular part of my visits to Salt Lake City. It gives Mormonism and its white bread capitol a new depth and dimension for me.

The Salt Lake Tribune has a virtual tour of the Garden.

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