Saints at Devil’s Gate: Landscapes Along the Mormon Trailby Matthew Innis |
In September 2013, artist Josh Clare approached the Church History Museum about a project he and fellow artists John Burton and Bryan Mark Taylor were working on. Called Saints at Devil’s Gate, the ambitious project was a large body of artwork made as the artists traveled to sites along the Mormon Trail and painted them en plein air.
The artists approached the subject matter 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 looked at the land with what art historian David Morgan calls a “sacred gaze.” Reflecting on their experience, the artists often remarked about their ability to bear witness to the trail and expressed a shared sense of awe and wonder at the near-mythical American West. Further, 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.
The paintings exhibited here are organized geographically, thereby creating an experience for the viewer that mirrors a journey. Each painting is paired with an excerpt from a pioneer trail journal or reminiscence. Some of these accounts are harrowing, but not all pioneers’ experiences were tragic. Journal entries often capture the mundane and practical toiling of daily life, and many accounts describe the trek west as a great adventure filled with amazement, wonder, and beauty. Most of these accounts point to the transformative nature of the experience and attest to the forming and shaping of testimonies and collective identities as Latter-day Saints along the dusty trail, whether on the plains of Nebraska, while crossing the Missouri River, or in the winding hills of Emigration Canyon.