Painting the Mormon Story
If you lived in Cokeville, Wyo., in the middle of the last century and needed to buy a pint of cream, you might very well have taken a walk down Main Street to the end, where the Teichert place marked the border between town and the grazing fields and western hills beyond. Your knock at the door of the bustling ranch house would summon white-haired, headbanded Minerva Teichert, glad you stopped by and grateful for a break from chores.
The chores she’d be referring to would depend on the time of day you called. If it were morning, it might be dishes after a 6 a.m. breakfast for a kitchen full of family and ranch hands. At midday, it might be cleaning milk bottles, churning butter, or forming a loaf of soap. In the afternoon, you might have caught her in her apron, pockets full of seed for her flock of 75 chickens.
She’d welcome you into the high-ceilinged front room and sit you on a worn couch. First thing you’d notice is the scent of linseed oil. Then you’d look up and see a painted canvas—in some stage of completion—filling every inch of the largest available wall in the room, with paintbrushes and a blotched palette nearby. You’d ask about the painting and, to be certain, you’d later leave the Teichert home with your pint of cream as well as a story—of a pioneer’s courage, an old Indian ritual, or maybe Lehi’s desert trek.
Minerva Teichert was a rancher’s wife and a gardener, a raiser of children and chickens, a maker of butter and biscuits, but at heart she was a storyteller, a teacher who found her greatest eloquence in bold brushstrokes on her entry-room wall.
Minerva Teichert is no longer selling cream at the end of Main Street in Cokeville, but she is still telling stories of the West and of her faith. Today, if you want a story from her, you can find it in galleries and in art shows, like the exhibit at BYU’s Museum of Art, Pageants in Paint, which explores ways Teichert borrowed storytelling techniques from pageants and used them in her murals. Taken together, Teichert’s paintings help tell another story—her own.
The Making of a Western Artist
Minerva Teichert lived her life at the border between the rustic and the refined, walking with one foot in the frontier and the other in the circles of culture and high society.
Born in 1888, Minerva spent much of her young life on a remote homestead near American Falls, Idaho. As soon as she could sit in a saddle on her own, Minerva could be found astride her horse, Gem, exploring the countryside and filling sketchbooks with charcoal and pencil observations of the Indians on the nearby reservation, the animals she encountered, and the landscapes around her. Her parents supplemented her sporadic formal education by reading aloud history, geography, and, one winter, the complete works of William Shakespeare. She would call the time she spent on the Idaho homestead her most important training as a painter.
Her art ambitions raised considerably at age 14, when she spent the summer in San Francisco as a nursemaid. There, at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, she observed the creation of great art for the first time. After graduating from high school, Minerva taught school and pitched hay to support her father on a mission to Europe and then to raise funds to study at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In Chicago, she became known to classmates and professors alike as Miss Idaho. Renowned draftsman John Vanderpoel taught Minerva and the other students every bone and muscle in the human body. One day, feeling Vanderpoel was excessively critical of her work, which she thought was better than that of her classmates, Minerva confronted her instructor. His disappointed face and choked reply always stayed with her: “Miss Idaho, can it be possible you do not understand[?] . . . [T]hey will drop out, but you—ah, there is no end.” Minerva finished her coursework in Chicago in 1912. While there she was introduced to mural painting, a then-popular form for many artists, who saw their works as a way to educate the masses.
During breaks in her coursework, Minerva had returned to Idaho to earn more money. There she resumed teaching and tried her hand at homesteading (sleeping for months in an isolated cabin with a pistol under her pillow). She also formed an attachment with Herman Teichert, a quiet, unlearned cowboy whose parents had emigrated from Germany. Minerva’s parents were against the match because Herman wasn’t a Mormon. Herman’s parents were against it because Minerva was. In the end, Minerva’s mother made an offer: if Minerva would agree not to marry Herman, she would support Minerva at the Art Students’ League in New York City. Telling Herman to find someone else to marry, Minerva chose art.
In April 1915 the 26-year-old artist boarded a train for the East. She immediately fell in love with New York, attending operas, concerts, and suffrage meetings. When funds ran low, she drew cadavers for medical schools and illustrated children’s books. She also donned an Indian costume and performed dances and rope tricks to earn money.
Minerva quickly emerged as a top student in her crowded art classes. When people questioned her choice of subjects for her art, she’d say, “There’s too much sagebrush in my blood to forget the beauties of rugged mountains [and] dry plains.” She became especially noted for the quality of her animal paintings. Back home, Utah and Idaho newspapers spread word of her successes, including the prizes and scholarships she won to further her studies with renowned artists of the day.
A major influence on Minerva was famed portraitist Robert Henri. “Love reality, but abhor photographic representation,” he instructed his students. He also taught them to use large brushes and loose strokes and to not overwork their compositions. Minerva blended Henri’s instruction, her training in figure drawing and mural techniques, and her Western sensibilities to create a style that is recognizable at a glance.
Henri, who became a lifelong friend and mentor, lent guidance in more than just brushstrokes. “Has anyone ever told your great Mormon story?” he asked her one day. “Not to suit me,” she replied. To this he retorted, “Good heavens, girl, what a chance. . . . Oh, to be a Mormon. . . . You’ll do it well.”
From that time on, “I felt that I had been commissioned,” she said.
But this wasn’t all that turned her focus westward. In a talk at church, a speaker counseled the women who had come east seeking worldly success: “Girls, what‘s a career? You go back home and marry your sweethearts and have your families and you will be much happier than you will [be] by following a career.” The sentiment struck Minerva. “I [thought] of all the men I had met in my search for ‘glittering gold,’” she later wrote, “and back on the Idaho desert, herding his cattle and branding his calves, was a man more nearly meant for me than anyone else in the world.”
With doors to the highest levels of American art opening before her, this time Minerva chose Herman and a family.
I Must Paint
Minerva Teichert chose family again and again throughout her life, as when she was invited by Henri and his wife to accompany them to Europe to study art. Herman consented, and Minerva, then a mother of three young boys, made plans to go. But then she had a vivid dream of a daughter and felt she should stay—much to the frustration of Henri. Laurie was soon born to the family.
But choosing marriage and family hardly meant forsaking art. To hear her describe it, one would think she had little choice in the matter. “I must paint,” Teichert would say. “It’s a disease.” Nothing—not the ranching duties she fulfilled, lead poisoning from her paints, or failing eyesight in later years—could keep her from painting.
In 1927 the Teicherts were forced from their remote Idaho log cabin in the Snake River bottoms, which were to be covered by a reservoir. When the family arrived at their high-mountain-valley ranch home in Cokeville, Wyo., they were delighted by the marvels of electricity and running water. But especially important to Teichert was a stretch of wall in her front room, much larger than any wall space in her Idaho cabin. She’d dreamt of such a space, and for the next four decades, a mural nearly always hung there. Large as it was, it wasn’t big enough to accommodate all her grand designs. Sometimes murals had to be folded over and painted one section at a time. To evaluate her work in the confined space, she’d view the paintings through binoculars turned backward.
With a dramatic nature, abundant vivacity, and unusual ways, Teichert stood out from but was appreciated by the Cokeville community. Arriving at age 39, she already had a shock of white hair, which was always encircled by a headband (she joked that this was to hold her brains in). Marian Eastwood Wardle (BA ’73), a granddaughter and curator of the current BYU exhibit, recalls her grandmother reciting poetry, sometimes stopping midline to strike an appropriate pose. Grandson Burke Teichert remembers, “When a funeral would end, she would go and help herself to a bouquet of flowers.” A day or two later she would present a still life of the bouquet to the grieving family. Eventually her neighbors caught on and began delivering the flowers to her doorstep.
But her main artistic outlet was her murals, to which she’d add strokes between chores. “She was a multitasker—big time,” says Wardle. “She’d be cooking at the stove and walk around [the corner] and put some brush strokes on the painting.” At night, once her children were asleep, Teichert gave her paintings full attention. She’d sometimes adjust the clocks to get them to sleep sooner.
While in Idaho, she had painted several works that hung in public spaces. But it was in the 1930s, early in the Great Depression, that her art began to pay off. Like most everyone else, the Teicherts were struggling to make ends meet. Minerva wanted to contribute with her brush, but she needed to reach out to a larger market. So she traveled to Salt Lake City in search of an agent. At a meeting with Alice Merrill Horne, a well-connected art dealer in Utah, she unrolled a mural and said simply, “Please look at this.” Horne was astonished. Two weeks later, Horne had arranged an exhibit of Teichert’s work. Within months Teichert would meet with the governor of Utah and receive enthusiastic reviews of her art in major Utah newspapers. In 1932, when the Teicherts’ economic situation reached a crisis, Horne found several buyers, and Teichert’s paintings saved the ranch.
The two became dear friends as Horne encouraged and directed Teichert’s efforts and regularly showed her works to potential buyers. In the 1930s alone, Horne placed some 60 Teichert murals in schools, churches, and civic buildings. When it came time for the Teicherts to send their children to college, Horne brokered a deal with BYU to provide scholarships in exchange for murals. Many Cokeville youth besides the Teichert children would eventually benefit from the arrangement.
As Teichert’s profile rose in Utah, the artist continued to explore stories of the Mormon migration and scriptural themes. By 1947, Teichert had risen to the top of the Mormon art world, winning first prize in the Church’s centennial art contest and becoming the first woman invited to paint a temple mural.
Her task was to paint the Manti Temple’s gigantic world room, which in other temples was typically rendered as a barren desert wasteland. True to form, Teichert envisioned an entirely different world room, creating a grand procession of people from every culture marching with high heads, hardly noticing the poor at their feet. “Beggars going unheeded by all these pompous people,” says Wardle. “Man’s inhumanity to man. That’s the lone and dreary world.”
Midway through her work on the mural, Teichert wrote her daughter: “The authorities told me to do this thing speedily and, believe me, as it nears conclusion it has been the speediest giant any American painter has ever concocted. . . . [The authorities] come often and are thrilled. I shall not fail them.” In her unrelenting approach and with the help of an assistant, Teichert finished major work on the nearly 4,000-square-foot mural in just 23 days.
Riding the crest of her successes, Teichert sketched out ambitious plans for the future and had every reason to expect them to materialize.
Telling the Mormon Story
Those who knew Minerva Teichert best say the only skill that rivaled her ability to paint was her ability to talk. Most often, the two went together.
Children and grandchildren universally recall coming in from the fields to use the bathroom or get a drink of water only to be detained as models for the current mural. And while they held their figures just so, Teichert provided her captives with lessons in art, scripture quotations, and commentary on the political problems of America.
“Always talking,” says Wardle, remembering her own modeling for her grandmother. “Lots of times it was quoting Isaiah.” But often she was telling the story of the pioneer or the scriptural character she was painting. Her teaching extended to dinnertime, when she’d read the scriptures or literature like Moby Dick while the others ate—saving her own meal for later. Herman, who had joined the Church soon after the move to Cokeville, supported her teaching efforts. “We had family home evening every evening,” recalls her youngest son, John Teichert.
The instruction wasn’t limited to family. “I have fond memories of her sitting on the couch with people who may or may not have been members of the Church,” recalls granddaughter Trudy Teichert Lamb (’66). “She would have her Book of Mormon or some scripture and she would be just animated telling them about this wonderful piece [of artwork] and the story that went with it.”
Teichert increasingly felt it was her responsibility to tell the Book of Mormon story in images so that “he who runs may read,” a common phrase from the time taken from the book of Habakkuk. So after finishing the Manti Temple mural, she set out on what she expected to be her masterwork—42 paintings of Book of Mormon stories, rendered large enough and simple enough to be “read” at a glance.
Finishing the paintings in 1952, the 64-year-old Teichert was aflame with enthusiasm for how the works might accompany the Book of Mormon text or be used as slides by missionaries around the world or be sold as a book of paintings.
What happened was something she never had anticipated—nobody wanted them. Many praised her efforts, but nobody would purchase the paintings, though Teichert would try for the remainder of her life to find a buyer.
A half-century later, Wardle describes two major factors that contributed to her grandmother’s declining influence in Mormon art. First, in 1948, was the death of Alice Merrill Horne, Teichert’s best critic and counselor on the art market. Then there were changing tastes. Murals had long since gone out of favor, and the Church commissioned others, such as Arnold Friberg, to paint the Book of Mormon.
Other dreams were fading too. Though Teichert had long desired to teach at BYU or another university, she had never been offered a post, presumably because in all her training she had not acquired the requisite degrees. Thus she had no true students, no one imitating her style, no one to whom she could pass the mantle she felt.
Though discouraged, Teichert wasn’t one to mope. After all, there were chickens to feed, grandchildren to tend, and genealogy to research. And she kept painting, eventually finding a new agent. Though the market for her religious work had run dry, her agent found interest in her western-themed works outside of Utah.
And she hadn’t lost confidence in her calling. One day a grandchild asked if she were famous. “No,” she replied with a smile, “but I will be someday.”
Lost and Found
In the spring of 1970, Teichert fell from her porch and broke her hip, possibly after suffering a stroke. She would never paint again. She died in 1976 in a Provo nursing home.
Within months of her death, Minerva Teichert would be rediscovered by the Mormon community. The thawing of awareness began quietly, when, just four months after her passing, a handful of her Book of Mormon paintings were used to illustrate a package of Ensign stories. That trickle of interest soon turned to a flood, when she was profiled in the Ensign two months later. The article called her art “sophisticated in technique and style, yet simple and direct in content and impact.”
With this growing interest, murals were dusted off and pulled from storage closets and from under stages in high schools, churches, and other buildings across the Intermountain West. Paintings were reproduced on covers of Church manuals, and murals began being mounted in temples around the world. In 1988, on the centennial of Teichert’s birth, the Church Museum of History and Art held a major retrospective exhibition.
One by one, many of Minerva Teichert’s dreams began to be fulfilled, including her hopes for the Book of Mormon paintings. In 1969 she had given the Book of Mormon paintings to BYU with no compensation or promise of publication. Upon receipt BYU showed the paintings briefly, then stored them away. In 1997, after the resurgence of interest in her work, BYU held a major exhibit of the Book of Mormon paintings and created a companion volume of the collection. BYU religion professors also lobbied to have Teichert’s Book of Mormon series line the hallways of the Joseph Smith Building, making it possible, in effect, for those who run to Book of Mormon class to read.
Wardle marvels at the revival of interest in her grandmother’s art. She was a student when Teichert donated the Book of Mormon paintings to BYU. Wardle remembers leafing through the comment book after attending that initial exhibit. “Every remark was disparaging,” she says. When she finally came upon a positive comment, she read the name below it: “Lois Dayton, Cokeville, Wyo.” Nearly forty years later, at the current Museum of Art exhibit, the comments have warmed considerably. “The colors give life to the story she tells and remind me of God’s tender mercies,” writes one viewer. “Absolutely beautiful,” adds another. “What a talent. What a spirit.”
Nowhere is the enduring spirit of Teichert’s work felt more strongly than in her hometown.
Walk down Main Street in Cokeville on a summer’s Sunday afternoon, down to where the town and grazing lands divide, and it’s easy to see that Teichert’s influence still lingers. There’s talk of making the Teichert place into a museum. But for now it remains a working ranch, occupied by a Teichert grandson and his family. Outside the house two great-grandsons relax in the shade. Adding a touch of art to their ranching know-how, they form their ropes into lassos and practice rope tricks. Soon they’ll be called in for dinner. They’ll find their places in the kitchen where Minerva Teichert once presided. And just past the stove, through an open doorway, on a large stretch of wall, they’ll be watched over by a canvas that tells a Book of Mormon story.