The classic twelve Book of Mormon paintings in this series were, at their time, an audacious pioneering undertaking in our church history. There had been nothing like them before.
Artists in the church had painted landscapes, portraits, and individual figures, but rarely the grouping of figure composition. Here and there an artist had done an individual scene from church history or from scripture. The exception, the outstanding effort of pioneer days, was C.C.A. Christensen’s remarkable series picturing events in early church history, a work of astonishing initiative and native vitality to have emerged from a remote frontier society.
But with the beginning of our second hundred years this was about to change. For in 1950 there arrived in Utah one Arnold Friberg, a nationally established “big-league” illustrator recognized especially for the epic power of his work. He had first visited Utah in the centennial year of 1947, and had stayed long enough to form associations and friendships.
At that time, the University of Utah wished to establish within their art department a special school of commercial art and illustration, the kind of art at which an artist can earn a living. This subject being totally practical rather than academic, teachers with academic degrees didn’t have the practical know-how. Having never attended a university, Friberg had no academic degree, but because of his abilities and years of experience, the university induced him to come to Utah and initiate such a school.
Aside from teaching, being a fresh professional talent in Utah, Friberg was soon in great demand, doing a variety of local commercial art and illustration, from book dust jackets to billboard designs, as well as several covers for “The Improvement Era” magazine.
His first Utah historical painting was commissioned in 1949 to commemorate the 100th year of Richard Ballantyne’s first pioneer Sunday School in the Salt Lake valley. The artist used his neighborhood children as models, dressing them in the costumes of the period. The picture was filled with a homespun western frontier feeling as well as the earnest spiritual mood of the historical event, causing Minerva Teichert to exclaim “And it’s so AMERICAN!”
As the artist’s talents became known, an idea of historical import began to take form. There was at that time a remarkable lady, Adele Cannon Howells, who was president of the church Primary department, for children under the age of 12. This organization published a monthly magazine called “The Children’s Friend” and Sister Howells wanted some special project of worth to the church to mark the 50th year of the magazine, something new and important.
Descended as she was from sturdy pioneer forebears, she determined to continue the pioneering tradition by boldly commissioning Arnold Friberg to paint a series of pictures of real power illustrating the Book of Mormon. There were to be 12 scenes, scheduled to run one each month during the magazine’s 50th year (although they finally ended up taking much longer).
There is a widespread misconception that these paintings were commissioned by the church. They were not. They were commissioned by Adele Cannon Howells. It is of historical importance that this project was entirely her effort. She conceived of it, she bulled it through against hesitancy and opposition, and above all she personally paid for it, as a donation to the church.
Throughout all the painting days, the artist never forgot that Sister Howells’ last act on earth, the night she died, was to arrange for the sale of some property to pay for the project. She never lived to see even the first painting done, and it was the memory of her dedication that strengthened Friberg to push the series through to full realization.
It is only right that she receive credit for this historic undertaking. For without her vision, her generosity, and her dogged determination, these paintings would never have existed. Her whole life and interests were in the children. Echoing the name of the Primary’s magazine, she even had on her ranch one of her horses named Children’s Friend.
So it is important to remember that these Book of Mormon pictures, though widely known and used by adults, were painted first of all for children.
The artist recalls that in his boyhood days, the leading national children’s publications were such magazines as St. Nicholas, Youth’s Companion, and the Boy Scouts’ magazine Boy’s Life. All of which were regularly filled with the work of the finest illustrators of the time. Continually seeing such work was a lasting stimulus for the young Arnold to develop his own talents, so as to some day himself be able to do such beautiful things.
With such memories, the artist has never lost his conviction that children like and respond to well done, fully developed pictures. He does not accept the notion that pictures for children must be done in some lightweight “kiddy” style or technique. For even when used as a children’s “teaching aid”, it is not enough just to show who is in the picture, what they look like and what they are doing, but the picture must convey to these young minds the power and majesty of the word of God.
With the passing of Sister Howells, it now fell to her successor, Sister LaVern Watts Parmley, to carry the project through to the full flower of completion, and this she faithfully did, with the same fervent dedication to standards that Sister Howells had initiated.
All 12 Arnold Friberg Book of Mormon lithographs are currently available as a signed and numbered set for $5300.