Special Feature | BYU Studies

Special Feature

Mormon Trail
January 3, 2017
Special Feature
New Exhibit at the Church History Museum: Saints at Devil's Gate
The Joseph Smith Papers Project

Anyone who appreciates a good blend of art and history will enjoy the new exhibit at the Church History Museum titled Saints at Devil’s Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail. It features fifty-two landscape paintings of the Mormon Trail—the 1,300-mile route from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah, that tens of thousands of Latter-day Saint pioneers traveled in the nineteenth century—as it exists today. These paintings were done by award-winning Latter-day Saint landscape artists John Burton, Josh Clare, and Bryan Mark Taylor. The paintings in the exhibition are organized geographically, beginning with depictions of Illinois and moving westward along the trail. “This geographic organization creates an experience for the viewer that mirrors a journey,” said Laura Allred Hurtado, curator at the Church History Museum. Each painting is paired with quotations from the original journals and reminiscences of pioneers who made the journey, selected by historian Bryon C. Andreasen. These firsthand accounts allow the paintings’ viewers to experience some of the feelings the Saints recorded as they passed that point in the trail in the 1800s. “Not all the experiences of the Mormon pioneers were tragic,” Hurtado points out. “Journal entries capture the mundane and practical toiling of daily life,” such as finding places to wash clothes, picking flowers, and dancing and playing music. Many of them point as well to the transformative nature of the experience, as testimonies and Latter-day Saint identities were formed and shaped along the dusty trail.

The historical aspect of the paintings enhances the beauty the paintings already hold in themselves. Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum in Southern California, said that the paintings will "appeal to all viewers, those who seek meaning and enlightenment in the historical background of the trail as well as those who seek beauty in art and nature." Hurtado adds, "Burton, Clare, and Taylor approached the subject of the Mormon Trail with a mix of professional practice and religious tribute. 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.'" Andreasen suggests 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," he said, “but history has a supporting role, an enrichment role, and suggests an additional lens that you can appreciate the art through.”

The Church History Museum in Salt Lake City will be exhibiting these paintings through 26 August 2017. Admission is free. The Church History Museum is also hosting a permanent online version of the exhibition. The Church Historian’s Press, which publishes The Joseph Smith Papers, has released a printed companion book that includes each of these paintings and the accompanying quotations, also titled Saints at Devil’s Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail. It is available at the museum or online at store.lds.org.