Book Review: Saints at Devil’s Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail
Saints at Devil’s Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail is a book atypical to those we ordinarily review at the Exponent. Atypical because it is a book associated with an art exhibit, but it is none less worthy of a review. Written by Laura Allred Hurtado and Bryon C. Andreasen, it contains beautiful landscape lithographs of the paintings created by three artists, John Burton, Josh Clare, and Bryan Mark Taylor. Accompanying the paintings are an introduction by Jean Stern, essays by the authors (a curator, and a historian, respectfully), notes by and an interview with the artists, plus a treasure trove of quotes from the journals of early pioneers who gazed upon the same landscapes more than a century ago.
The book is based on a project to explore the vision of Martin’s Cove (Casper, WY, USA) and Devil’s Gate (Sweetwater River, WY, USA). The project itself is personal, and each of the artists share a connection to the space they rendered with their hearts and paintbrushes:
“All of the artists felt a deep personal connection to Martin’s Cove and Devil’s Gate…. For the artists, such sites transcended neutral locations of geological interest or simply beautiful landscapes and were endowed with a memory of those who traversed there, made personal through the blood of ancestry.” (pg 4)
So the artists have ancestors who travelled west on the Mormon trail, which made the project personal for them. But what of us, whose ancestors did not shed blood or tears on the Mormon trail over a century ago? Or live in another hemisphere and cannot go to the exhibit in person? Should we bother to consider this book? And what of those who do not generally prefer landscape painting? As Hurtado explains in her curator’s essay, “More Wonderful Than Beautiful”:
“…landscapes can have a sense of God’s greatness, in part due to its grandeur, power and vastness, but also in comparison to one’s human vulnerability.” (pg 9)
“[The Mormon pioneers] descended through mountain canyons into the Salt Lake valley, a place they thought of as Zion, described in scripture as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” There they would unite with shared faith to build a community…carving a space for themselves….”(pg 9)
“So it is with us today, people searching for a sense of home, of belonging, and of safety….Because not only do many people point to the pioneers’ legacy as an example, but the historical accounts also serve as metaphors for the tumultuous journey of life itself. Such persistent travailing mirrors the times when we ourselves, like the Saints at Devil’s Gate, toiled, stumble and feed ourselves as refugees destitute wanderers without a home. Like the early Saints, we sacrifice, struggle, experience profound loss, and prevail in the messiness and heartaches of daily life. And in such times,- with our own vulnerability, our feelings of insignificance, our terror, our fear, and even our failures—we come to understand the greatness of God more intimately and in ways we hadn’t before.” (pg 9)
Thus, Hurtado’s hymn of inclusion invites us to become a part of the artwork and to engage with shared feelings on our own personal pioneer journeys. She suggests that even those who lack biological American pioneer ancestry can become one with the feelings of hope, destitution, seeking and progressing that are relayed in the paintings. Her essay is followed by Andreasen’s historical essay of invocation, “Oh, How I Wish Mine Were a Painter’s Pencil or a Poet’s Pen.” This essay celebrates the men and women who travel the Mormon Trail today as they did a century ago. He reminisces of his own family’s road trips along the Mormon Trail, making me wish I lived in North America so I could drive the trail with my family. He also shares his own heart as he wonders what it might have been like for his own great, great, great grandmother as she walked miles upon miles (can’t we add kilometres in parenthesis?) to the Salt Lake Valley. He prepared us for the sometimes conflicting quotes used to punctuate the paintings, by explaining:
“How pioneers experienced landscapes depended on a variety of things: the mode of transportation hey used, their age and sex, the particular company with which they travelled, and the year and season when they undertook the trek. Regardless of these circumstances, however, their writings show that while landscapes could arouse discouragement and fear over the daunting physical obstacles they posed, they could also evoke awe and admiration for their beauty at the same time. Sentiments of hardship, misery and sacrifice were recurrent, but not constant; expressions of happiness, humor, joy, exhilaration, and a sense of spiritual reverence are common.”
The statements, notes and quotes in this book are as much of a treasure as are the paintings. The quotes from women outnumber the quotes by men and reflect the experiences of “average” Mormon women and men, meaning who were immigrants as well as those who were generational Americans. Indeed, the conflicting quotes add another depth to the paintings. For example, Lousia Barnes Pratt (age 43) expressed in 1846 that the roads were “most intolerable” and:
“It was a query in my mind how the first company, going as they did in early spring ever forced their way through so much mud! I was led to exclaim what is there in all the world, the Mormons will not attempt to do!”(pg 26)
(I hear ya, sister!)
On the same page, and of speaking of the same point of trek, is a comparison quote from Lorenzo Brown (age 23) who travelled around 1856: “Thus far have had good roads considering the heavy rain.” (pg 26)
The quotes express more than just different (or often similar) perspectives, time periods, and seasonal blessings or trials, but they also reflect maturity and spiritual development in how each person managed the trek west. When pondered in reflection of the paintings, one can easily feel the depth of words and conflict, as well as in awe.
In the end, and as one who likes to collect the books often sold at art exhibitions, I find this book to be different. Not only is the price lower than most companion books sold at art shows, it comes with an accompanying website to share the work with a wider audience. The accompanying words are also well worth the price of the book, and add a depth to the images alone. This book is powerful enough that I recommend it for those who love art, love church history and love Mormon women’s history. This includes an audience who are unable to go to see the paintings in person, for it is not just a book accompanying an art show, but it is a historical record that expresses reflections of an individual spiritual journey.
The book cannot currently be purchased through Amazon, but we will give an update when this changes. I also could not find it on the church’s Australian website yet, but hope it will be made globally available soon. It can be purchased through the United States LDS distribution centre here.