Folk Art

by Martha Sonntag Bradley

Nauvoo Temple Sampler, by Ann Eckford (c. 1846, embroidered cross stitch, 15"x 20"). The names of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as constituted in 1846 surround this cross stitch representation of the Nauvoo Temple. George Miller is also shown as president of the High Priests Quorum (PHP), Bishop Newel K. Whitney as president of the Aaronic Priesthood (PAP), and stake president John Smith as patriarch. Church Museum of History and Art.

Through a combination of religious and western American metaphors and images, the whole saga of the Church has been artistically represented, from its origins in 1820 in a grove near Palmyra, New York, to the present. Songs and stories about the migration to Utah and the colonization of the Great Basin, anecdotal biographies of Church leaders, folklore incidents of faith, and the miraculous and sometimes comical struggles of the pioneer Saints form integral parts of LDS culture (see Art in Mormonism). Mormon folk art perpetuates a sense of inclusiveness and serves to bind Latter-day Saints together and help define who they are. Overwhelmingly, Mormon folk art has been the work of a faithful, pragmatic people.

For Latter-day Saint artists, the migration west was "the worst of times and the best of times." Driven from Nauvoo, they faced the prospect of building a new Zion, a home in the mountains. Their folk art is richly expressive of connections to their past and of their unique experience on the frontier. When one pioneer woman, Bathsheba Smith, packed her trunk for the journey into western territory, she carefully selected what to take and what to leave behind. Deep in the corner of her single trunk she placed her paints, paper, and brushes wrapped in cloth. She added her lace-making tools and fibers to make the beautiful delicate lace for which she was famous. These tools of art she placed beneath the folds of a quilt made by her mother for her wedding day.

In a concrete sense, Bathsheba Smith was blending the old and the new by preserving the past and welcoming the future. When she once again took up her paints, this time in Utah, she would paint the story of the journey. Pioneer artist C. C. A. Christensen would do likewise, chronicling a story that would figure prominently in the folk art of the Mormon people. William Clayton would immortalize the faith of the pioneers in the words of a hymn: "Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear; but with joy wend your way."

Mormon folk art was practical—functional, yet often beautiful and decorative. The imagery of the LDS pioneer quilt reflected a western preoccupation with the natural environment. Pine trees, oaks, and mountain laurels had always been favored quilt motifs, but new images, notably the sego lily and the beehive, told of the work of the Mormon pioneers in Deseret.

The beehive appears in every genre of Mormon folk art—quilts, paintings, sculptures, architecture, and gravestones. The stonework of nineteenth-century Mormon culture is a rich statement of popular values, legends, and religion. A strong visual connection exists between pioneer gravestone imagery and New England tombstone art. But the cemeteries of small towns throughout Utah speak also of the unique LDS belief system and pioneer heritage. In addition to traditional motifs, religious emblems associated with the outside of temples flourished in this lively local art form.

One need not travel far into rural Utah to notice the distinctive folk architecture that existed among the Saints. The most common design was the "I" house, or old "Nauvoo style" house. It was a tall two-story house with a chimney at each gable end and usually a symmetrical arrangement of doors and windows at the front. Larger homes were constructed by connecting two or three I houses together to create a "T," "L," or "H" house. The most common indigenous building material was adobe, a local unfired brick produced by a mixture of mud and straw.

Pictorial Rug with Temples and Church Leaders, by Reuben and Mary Ouzounian (c.1955; wool, cotton, silk, goat hair; 270 cm X 360 cm). Armenian Latter-day Saints living in Aleppo (now Haleb), Syria, completed this rug during their long and uncertain wait for visas permitting them to join Church members in Utah. Among the motifs are the Rocky Mountains under American flags, covered wagons recalling earlier pioneers, and representations of the temples and Church presidents to that date. Church Museum of History and Art.

Distinct Mormon folklore also reflected the Latter-day Saint belief system. Stories of visits from the three Nephites often served as spiritual landmarks for the teller, and Elder J. Golden Kimball became a sort of folk hero through stories about his experiences and wit. Like quilts, Mormon folklore had a very specific function: usually it sought to enhance the faith and the sense of spirit of its audience. The story of the migration of the Mormon pioneers and the building of Zion became almost a kind of modern-day scripture.

Early twentieth-century LDS women continued the pioneer tradition of their mothers. Their Relief Society "workdays" became the institutional means for preserving folk art traditions. The emphasis on homemaking reflected a respect for traditional art forms that were displayed in quilting, fine sewing, and other household arts and crafts. Homemaking day became a monthly social event as Relief Society sisters met in a group for home crafts, homemaking lessons, and supper. The result was sometimes a somewhat modern-day version of Mormon folk art, different from the more personal expression of nineteenth-century women.

In the mid-twentieth century the Church often adopted an institutional method of preserving past art forms. The Church-wide dance festivals held into the 1970s brought young people together from across the world to share in an evening of the celebration of folk dance forms. Similarly, roadshows gave expression to local members' talents in miniplays that often depicted pioneer heritage values and customs (see Drama). Musicals like My Turn on Earth and Saturday's Warrior in much the same way as nineteenth-century folklore perpetuated folk traditions about premortal existence and the significance of life on earth (see Music).

Twentieth-century Mormon folk art also reflects a faithful people as the story of the founding events and of the pioneers continues to figure prominently in every type of folk art. In general, it features respect for traditional art forms and mass participation. Folk art forms now flourishing in many different cultures have been welcomed as personal expressions of the testimony and love of Church members around the world.

[See also Folklore; Material Culture; Daily Living home page; The Arts home page.]


Brunvand, Jan Harold. A Guide for Collectors of Folklore in Utah. Salt Lake City, 1971.

Cannon, Hal. The Grand Beehive. Salt Lake City, 1980.

Fox, Sandi. Quilts in Utah. Salt Lake City, 1987.