Art and religion have a long and pervasive relationship in most of the world. Despite this long relationship, the central importance of religion in understanding folk art has received academic prominence only in the past decade. One of the major proponents of using religion to understand folk art is Henry Glassie, who argues religion is more significant for understanding folk art than is history.1 In fact, observers are increasingly aware that only an understanding of communal ideals will give many artifacts any real significance.2 This view is readily reflected in the popular American folk art traditions of the Shakers and Amish. The emphases on humility found in the Shakers’ simple, direct forms and on the avoidance of the new or ostentatious in Amish folk art are so prominent even the casual outside observer quickly notices their presence. These traditions easily impart a sense of group cohesiveness and of religious community.
In contrast, Latter-day Saint folk art does not quickly convey such a sense of humility or community to the casual outsider, and even many inside the core cultural spheres of the faith perceive only an apparent emphasis on what is new, decorative, or showy—all adjectives that imply competitive and divisive behavior, not religious community and cooperation. Some have even held the individual up in contrast to the community as the ideal. Two students of Mormon art conclude, “In the creative experience the creator-artist expresses his uniqueness, his free choice that is basic to Mormon doctrine.”3
Although this view could certainly apply to some Latter-day Saint academic art, the overwhelming conclusion of those examining folk art in other communities has been that their art is a reflection of community ideals and is a celebration of the community as a whole. This approach reflects the nature of the art produced, as Vlach discovered in his examination of African-American folk art:
The essential characteristics of folk things stem from their communal nature. Because they are shared expressions they are not unique but typical and even commonplace; they are not usually monumental but ordinary and familiar; they are not singular but precedented, formulaic, and duplicated; they are not the product of a lone instant but are repeated continuously.4
The emphasis on community and tradition over creativity and individuality should not surprise anyone. After all, as Bourdieu observes, “There is no struggle concerned with art that is not also concerned with the imposition of an art of living.”5 Given the evidence from other groups, we would expect Latter-day Saint folk art to also reflect a spirit of community. The following preliminary examination not only corroborates this assumption, but also indicates that humility is as important a driving force in Latter-day Saint folk art as it is in Shaker and Amish traditions.
The examination is narrowly focused on two specific folk-art traditions in the Intermountain West—plastic-resin grapes and hair work. Although other folk arts have been practiced in different times and places in an increasingly international religious body, the popularity of plastic grapes and hair work among Latter-day Saint women in the Intermountain West and other scattered Latter-day Saint communities suggests that these two traditions should begin any study of Mormon folk art. Both of these art forms have received outside ridicule at one point; however, a close examination reveals that the aspects of both forms that received the most criticism are actually what gave these folk arts social and religious significance.
Community in art and the religious significance of decorating a home with “handmade” items were fostered through Relief Society organizations making plastic-resin grapes (see color plate 1). Because of the Relief Society’s networks, the grapes’ popularity quickly spread to become almost universal among Latter-day Saint households in the Intermountain West. Grapes were also made in other households and even appeared in businesses, for example wineries in California.6
Brief History. Some of the specifics of the development of plastic-resin grapes are still not clear. We do know that, when they first appeared, expensive glass grapes were already popular in California and elsewhere. And plastic resin was being used to encase insects, rock collections, and other items. In this context, Ruby Swallow developed inexpensive plastic grapes.
Swallow was thoroughly part of the Latter-day Saint tradition. Born in 1905 in the small hamlet of Hogan just north of Fillmore, Utah, she presented flowers as a young girl to President Joseph F. Smith when he visited Fillmore. Swallow always enjoyed making things with her hands and saw handwork as an important part of her activity as a Latter-day Saint. In 1963 she took old, glass Christmas-tree balls, put a piece of wire in each, and poured in plastic resin. She chose the color orange “because it matched [her] living room.”7 Swallow continued to experiment during June or July of 1963, and in September she completed her first set of grapes in time to show them at a stake homemaking activity (see color plate 2A). Sister Louise W. Madsen, the second counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, saw the grapes and asked Swallow to display them the following month as part of the homemaking display produced in conjunction with the semiannual general conference.
The first time most Latter-day Saints saw plastic grapes was at that October 1963 homemaking display. They became popular immediately. In fact they became so successful that within a very short time many Church members had made grapes. Swallow was hired by an arts and crafts store to teach classes on plastic grapes, and other stores quickly joined the market.8 The plastic-resin grapes remained unusually popular for years. In the early 1970s, almost a decade after the first set was made, many Latter-day Saint households in the Intermountain West and elsewhere had at least one set of grapes (see color plate 2B). Some had plastic grape swag lamps as well (see color plate 3). With the consequent decrease in demand for more grapes, the various grape promoters invented other ways to use up their dyes, wires, resin, catalyst, and glass-ball molds. The plastic grapes still sitting in boxes were sold to children to make toys.
Popularity of Plastic Grapes. Plastic grapes became so popular among Latter-day Saint women that an out-of-town visitor asked Ruby Swallow’s sister if the grapes were somehow connected to Mormon beliefs. Because Ruby told that story during many homemaking demonstrations, it became familiar to many Latter-day Saints, and a number of variations on the story are still repeated.9 Although this perception by some outside observers is well known, it has generally been laughed off without an attempt to understand why the grapes became so popular so quickly and stayed popular for so long when other similar projects were quickly forgotten (for example, feather flowers, foam hats, and marble wall plaques). Even those who sold or promoted plastic grapes were surprised at their continued popularity and fully expected the market to become saturated much sooner than it did.
Among the many possible reasons for the popularity of plastic grapes, two seem to predominate: plastic grapes came to represent the values of home and community, and they were a convenient way for Latter-day Saint women to live what they believed was a religious injunction to decorate their homes with handmade items.
Ideology and Grape Production. Less than a month after the grapes were introduced during general conference, Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated, and American involvement in the Vietnam conflict escalated dramatically. Only a few weeks after the general conference display, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. In short, plastic grapes were introduced at the beginning of what became a tumultuous period in American history, and they continued to be made until the early 1970s, when American involvement in the Vietnam conflict diminished.
Of course, the grapes were not directly connected with the politics of the time, but the political climate influenced the feelings of many Latter-day Saints concerning family, religion, and the stability of home life. During the upheaval of the times, the grapes became a subtle symbol of the value of home and family. They generally sat almost invisible in the living room of an active Latter-day Saint woman, blending into the matching orange carpet or purple-flowered wallpaper. Recently one writer fondly recalled the grapes as a reminder of “hot summer days” and “all the other things that, long time ago, have gone away.”10 In 1993 the Utah Quilters’ Guild announced in their newsletter, the Beeline, that the beehive would no longer be their symbol. Instead, the guild had chosen grapes as their new logo. The grape had been “unanimously and enthusiastically voted in” because, as one speaker noted,
we piece them, appliqué them, stuff them, jelly and juice them. We’ve even immortalized this glorious fruit with permanent acrylic models which have been passed down from Grandmother to Mother to Daughter to D.I. to D.I. [Deseret Industries].11
The grapes had also come to symbolize family continuity.
The grapes were generally made as a community. Rarely could one person complete the process herself. The balls were usually poured and assembled in Relief Society, their production and distribution taking place almost entirely in the context of a religious community. Even those who were not Latter-day Saints tended to work in groups.12
Plastic grapes were introduced at a time when the Relief Society organization was promoting arts and crafts. In 1963 the Relief Society Magazine published its first section devoted exclusively to arts and crafts and strongly encouraged them until the magazine was discontinued in 1971. That year marked the beginning of “a precipitous drop in the emphasis on arts and crafts” in the Relief Society.13 Plastic grapes began to fade from the scene at about the same time. Many LDS women credit the Relief Society’s emphasis on arts and crafts for their participation in grape making.
Lou Wimmer began a career in arts and crafts just as plastic grapes were becoming popular. Reflecting on more than thirty years of experience working with other Latter-day Saint artisans, Wimmer concluded that “we were commanded in the D&C to make beautiful things with our hands.”14 Many other Latter-day Saint folk artists have expressed this same view. Plastic grapes were well suited to this vision of art. Eleanor Zimmerman, who was an early influence in popularizing plastic grapes and who worked with other Latter-day Saint artisans for more than forty years, concludes, “plastic grapes were so popular because they were handmade but looked store bought.”15 In Zimmerman’s view, plastic grapes allowed women to live up to what they believed was a religious injunction to make things with their hands. They could create a product that looked like quality craftsmanship but did not demand the time and training required to become expert in other art forms.
About the time that the popularity of plastic grapes was beginning to wane, Rodello Hunter wrote:
In Relief Society on Work Day, the women make things. The amount of Work Day items are innumerable. I have abundantly scattered the works of my hands in my house and in the houses of my relatives and friends. I have also received dozens of these items.16
Hunter perceives that making things by hand is important as a creative process, but she also believes that giving and receiving these handmade items is part of that process. Handmade gifts serve as a means of creating reciprocal relationships with others. Hunter argues that a handmade item is a gift of self and “a gift that cannot be purchased.”17 Thus, in addition to symbolizing family life and serving as a treasure to be handed down from generation to generation, the grapes were a symbol of both a true gift of self given in love as well as an image of humility and sacrifice because their maker had created them with her own hands. As such, they were used to decorate the home and other sacred places where the community worshipped.
Over time the grapes lost their appeal and slowly began disappearing from their central place in the home. Although some have assumed they were all given to the Deseret Industries (Mormon version of Goodwill stores and the Mormon image of unwanted items), most grapes seem to have found their way to the private spheres of the bedroom or children’s stored inherited treasures.
Publicly, plastic grapes are now generally viewed in a negative light. When a cluster of grapes was included in a 1978 folk-art exhibition, “many visitors were confused and irritated” that an item “aesthetically judged by popular culture to be without merit” had been included.18 The now widespread contempt for the grapes is illustrated in the comment of a woman involved in the establishment of a new religious tradition in Manti, Utah. As an example of how her women’s organization differs from the Relief Society, Elaine Harmston replied, “You won’t find any resin grapes on our tables.”19 This response is not a unique one. Most Latter-day Saints now view the grapes as insignificant if not silly. But with time they may come to be viewed as the folk art they are.
Hair work underwent a decline in popularity similar to that of plastic grapes. After falling out of fashion, hair wreaths were viewed as “misguided monuments to persistence in collecting.”20 Now it is much easier to view hair work as a folk-art tradition. An examination of Latter-day Saint hair work sheds light on the origins of some beliefs of Mormon folk artists about their work.
Cultural Foundations. Hair work is not a unique Latter-day Saint art tradition. Locks of hair believed to belong to early Christian saints and other significant individuals were worn in jewelry by the tenth century. Before the sixteenth century, jewelry itself was occasionally made of hair. In John Donne’s poem “The Relic,” published in 1633, the speaker asks to be buried wearing “a bracelet of bright hair” as a love token from his mistress. Making mourning jewelry of human hair was revived in the mid-eighteenth century (the era of the Graveyard School of poetry). Throughout the Victorian period, hair work of all kinds was popular, and in the United States its popularity peaked between 1820 and 1880. Some women still weave items out of hair.21
During the mid–nineteenth century, hair work for purposes other than jewelry became increasingly popular. The best known example was probably a life-size portrait of Queen Victoria exhibited in Paris in 1855. As early as the winter of 1850, Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, the most popular women’s magazine in America, began to publish a series of how-to articles on hair work. In many magazines, women could read articles on making flowers out of yarn and “hair pictures” out of pieces of hair glued in mosaic form. There is no clear documentation on how the transition was made from weaving traditional hair jewelry to making other things such as hair wreaths and “trees,” but by 1864 instructions were published for making hair flowers, from which the wreaths were made, by wrapping hair around wires.22 Their connection to yarn flowers is clear because an identical process using yarn is described almost a decade earlier in Godey’s.23 Latter-day Saint women made flowers out of both yarn and hair and displayed them in similar ways.24
Hair flowers were viewed as a more challenging and complex art form than hair jewelry. Women were told in Godey’s that hair flowers were “a branch of the hair work which depends more on the artistic skill and delicacy of touch of the worker, and on practice, than on any instructions we can give.”25 So the readers were essentially left to learn the art on their own. Most women seemed to learn by word of mouth. This was the case with the women in Bear Lake Valley. For example, Ila Wright learned the art from her mother, Caroline Jensen Allred, who learned it from Nancy Rich Pugmire, one of three women who brought knowledge of hair work to the valley in the 1860s.26
By the late 1800s, knowledge of hair-work techniques had spread to the point that most women knew how to make wreaths and trees out of hair and most had contributed to one or more wreaths. Lichten concludes, “Hair wreaths and ‘trees’ were in high fashion in the 1860s and 1870s, although several decades earlier domestic circles were already practiced in the art of making these mournful trophies.”27
Victorian Ideology and Hair Work. Campbell’s 1867 instructions on hair work note that hair jewelry functions “either as an ornament or memento.”28 Jewelry made from the hair of a known individual was generally known as “sentimental jewelry” and was often given as a token of love or friendship. However, for Victorians it really came into its own as mourning jewelry. One surviving account of a man’s funeral in Boston indicates that two hundred mourning rings were made of his hair and given to friends with inscriptions like “Prepare to follow me” attached to them.29
Hair was significant as a memento because it was considered to be durable remains of a loved one. It served both as a reminder of the person and a way to keep his or her presence near. An advertisement for hair jewelry from the period states:
Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting of our materials and survives us, like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend, we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with angelic nature—may almost say: “I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.”30
Wreaths made from hair flowers differed from hair jewelry for most Victorians in that they were seen as solely decorative. Urbino instructed, “To make hair flowers we need live hair, that is hair from the head of a living person.”31 Physiologically, this was not necessary; the hair was equally workable if the donor was alive or dead. Ideologically, it was essential; hair from the dead made the piece a memorial rather than simply a decoration. However, every piece of hair work eventually became a memorial as it survived its owner.
Latter-day Saints and Victorian Hair-Work Ideology. For Latter-day Saint women, hair jewelry often had a sentimental value similar to that of other Victorians. A man’s watch chain was usually made from his wife’s hair. Sometimes women would send watch chains made from their own hair to fiancés who were on Church missions.32
Just as other Victorians did, Latter-day Saint women occasionally used their own hair to make flowers. In her journal, Emily Spencer describes the same process for making hair flowers that women all over the United States were using.33 Their hair made the long petals, and their husband’s hair made the flower’s center. These were arranged into “family wreaths” or “flowering trees,” which were kept under dome-shaped glass.
The same sentiment appears to have been associated with these flowers as was connected with the watch chains sent to missionaries. They became mementos of the love two people shared. Some also had hair from parents or children, thereby extending the bonds of love beyond the couple to the family. Others were made from the hair of Church leaders. These were considered particularly significant. One hair wreath, made from the hair of eight Relief Society leaders and twenty-nine General Authorities (including hair from Joseph Smith), hung in the main entrance of the Salt Lake Temple until 1967. In another case, “a wreath of hair . . . especially caught the attention of the visitors [to the Women’s Territorial Centennial Exposition in Salt Lake] because its braids contain hair from the heads of our murdered Prophet and Patriarch, as well as from Brigham Young, his counselors, and some of the Twelve Apostles.”34
Hair work was also done as a means to express oneself or pass time. The latter purpose is especially notable where passing time was foremost in the minds of artisans serving time as convicts. During the polygamy raids of the period, some of the men convicted as “cohabs” became avid workers of hair. One man cut hair from the children of his cell mate, Joseph Heywood, when they came to visit and made a hair corsage for Heywood. This attempt at art was described as “characteristic of an amateur.”35
Latter-day Saint Departure in Ideology. Superficially, what Latter-day Saint women were doing was not any different from what other women of their era were doing. Despite the similarity between the process and perceptions of hair work by Latter-day Saints and other Victorians, the values were subtly different. Because hair mementos were strongly associated with death, Latter-day Saint views on death influenced how the work was viewed. One of the earliest examples of human hair used in Mormon folk art is Mary Ann Broomhead’s embroidered piece made in 1844 to honor the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith (see color plate 4). Above an urn with the martyrs’ initials on it, Mary Ann stitched with her hair a verse that lamented the death of the martyrs and concluded: “When the earth shall be restored / They will come with Christ the Lord.” The use of hair to embroider a piece with an emphasis on the resurrection was a logical extension of the traditional association of hair with death.
The sisters in the Manti South Ward Relief Society made a hair wreath to decorate the Manti Temple (see color plate 5). In the center of the work is a thin piece of wood cut and painted by Janne Sjodahl to look like oxen standing on a tiled floor with a vase or font on their backs. Out of the font grows a bouquet of hair flowers. Surrounding the scene is a large wreath of flowers open at the top like a large horseshoe or dish.
The image of the oxen and font would have had specific meaning for the Relief Society members. It represents a baptismal font used on behalf of people who have died. The hair coming out of the font strengthens the message of resurrection, a message reinforced by the words written on the font: “These locks of hair, O Lord, thou hast seen us wear, so now we commit them to Thy Holy Temple’s Care.” Although the author was probably looking for a rhyme for hair, the choice of the word Care at the end of the verse strengthens the connection between hair and resurrection. A purpose of Latter-day Saint temples is preparing Church members for the Resurrection. In that context, the temple’s “care” for the hair could symbolize the preparation individuals receive for their own resurrection. These women were familiar with the prophet Alma’s promise in the Book of Mormon that in the Resurrection “a hair of the head shall not be lost” (Alma 40:23). Although quite a leap from a single word to a general symbolic meaning, this interpretation makes the entire image relevant.
If hair wreaths did become symbols of the Resurrection, this meaning was only incidental and temporary. More significant and enduring meaning was attached to the pieces as symbols of unity and community. Rarely was a wreath made out of the hair of one individual. Wreaths were generally made from the hair of a specific group—a family, Church leaders, or a Relief Society. The hair from these individuals was brought together in one common image to create unity from individuality. These wreaths were hung in communal spaces—temples, chapels, or parlors.
Hair wreaths also became symbols of humility because they were works made by hand. The editor of Bikuben, a Danish Latter-day Saint newspaper, commented on the attention given to the hair wreath displayed at the Centennial Exposition (described above): “I wish our sisters in the Church would increase the production of such beautiful handwork which would be used to adorn themselves, witnessing that these were the works of their own hands.”36 This same phrase is found in Doctrine and Covenants 42:40: “And again, thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands.” This statement, given in the context of a revelation largely about economic relationships, affirms humility in connection with creations made by one’s “hands.”
The Latter-day Saint World View as Expressed in Folk Art
Plastic grapes and hair wreaths both express aspects of the world view of Latter-day Saint folk artists. Although these beliefs are not readily accessible by looking at the art, they were part of the belief system of the artists. Plastic grapes came to symbolize stability, homemaking skills, and family life, while hair wreaths were linked to beliefs in the Resurrection. Both reflect community unity and the humility of adorning homes and public buildings with handmade items.
“Work of thine own hands” in the injunction “let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the hands” was expanded to apply to all forms of decoration, especially those things made for the home. President Spencer W. Kimball told Latter-day Saints, “I’ve always felt to commend the sisters who tat and knit and crochet, who always have something new and sparkling about the place.”37 “Plain” continued to be restricted to its original context of clothing. Even today a temple as a “house of God” is elaborately decorated while those who go to worship there avoid ostentatious clothing and jewelry.
The importance of sisters producing “new and sparkling” objects has been stressed in a variety of ways over the years. In a Relief Society manual on “handicrafts,” women were instructed, “Many people believe, unfortunately, that the purpose of art and of art instruction is to create a body of professional artists and practitioners. This is not so[;] . . . art is an adjunct to every-day life, [and] ordinary folk, like ourselves, can apply it—even create it.”38 This view of art as a production by “ordinary folk” during their everyday lives was compared by Glenn Johnson Beeley, former art director for the Relief Society, to religious commitment. “Picture-gallery art,” Beeley told Relief Society members, “is about as unsatisfying as a Sunday religion.”39 In other words, art should fit into the larger context of daily life and the home.
“Picture-gallery art,” however, has always been an important part of the Latter-day Saint art tradition, although for many Church members, this art has been heavily complemented with their own productions. Folk artists, as “ordinary folk,” worship daily by creating things for their homes.
Neither plastic grapes nor hair wreaths were seen by their creators as essential to their core religious beliefs, yet these items not only expressed some of those beliefs, but were also nourished by them. These two folk-art traditions, still frequently viewed as silly rather than significant, also have their place in any attempt to understand the Latter-day Saint art tradition. As Church membership continues to expand rapidly in countries with strong folk-art traditions, an understanding of the historical foundations of Mormon folk art will aid in interpreting and determining the future direction of the artistic traditions developing in those new Latter-day Saint contexts.