John Burton still remembers how freezing he felt as he kneeled on the edge of the Mississippi River.
He was completing a sketch of the place where Latter-day Saint pioneers started on their trek from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City.
“I painted as fast as I possibly could so I could get back in the warmth of the car and then go get hot cider or a hot chocolate," Burton said. "I only spent a few minutes out there, but it made me wonder, 'What was it like when (the pioneers) were out there waiting to cross, knowing that they weren’t going anywhere warm?'”
It was the journal writings of his pioneer ancestors that gave Burton an appreciation and love for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Latter-day Saint artist John Burton's pallet as he paints outdoors along the Mormon Trail near Council Bluffs, Iowa. His works are part of a new exhibition at the Church History Museum. | LDS Church
Although he has pioneer heritage on both sides of his family, Burton grew up knowing very little about the church. A significant part of his conversion was learning about the experiences and sacrifices of his ancestors.
After his conversion, Burton, who is a landscape artist, had a desire to paint the Mormon Trail as a way to add his own testimony and faith to that of the pioneers.
With the help of friends and fellow artists Josh Clare and Bryan Mark Taylor, Burton’s dream became a reality.
The artists traveled along the Mormon Trail from 2011-2016, braving all types of weather to create contemporary paintings of these historical sites. Their work culminated in an exhibit at the LDS Church History Museum that features landscape paintings depicting the 1,300-mile route that Latter-day Saints traveled between 1846 and 1868, according to a news release. The paintings are paired with journal excerpts that offer glimpses of pioneer life.
A project of faith
Burton waited a year before telling his friends about his idea. He was worried that the project was too large in scope, as well as a sacrifice of time and money. He even thought about canceling the project when he realized that the views along the trail oftentimes weren't picturesque as the pioneers generally traveled the flatter, less scenic route. But both Clare and Taylor were committed to the idea.
“I was excited about it right from the start,” Clare said in a phone interview. “I was anxious for the chance to use what I do for a living to try to do something for the church.”
For Clare, his faith and profession are deeply intertwined as many of his landscape paintings serve to remind him of Heavenly Father’s presence and love. One such painting is “Rock of Ages,” a depiction of Devil’s Gate, Wyoming. As Clare recalled his experience at this spot nearing the end of the Mormon Trail, he referred to it as a “sacred place.”
"Winter at Devil's Gate" by Bryan Mark Taylor. | Provided by the Church History Museum
He didn’t have much time when he arrived at Devil’s Gate. The sun had just started to set. A big challenge in doing a project of this scale was that the artists only had a brief window of time to capture the essence of each place they visited along their journey.
“We were hitting places basically once or twice,” Clare said. “We just had one shot to see what would happen, to see how the light was in that moment.”
Despite these limited circumstances, the artists were often greeted with ideal conditions, something that served as a testament to the work they were doing, Clare said.
Devil’s Gate was no exception. When Clare approached this landmark he said he was touched by the serenity of the scene: the quietness, the emptiness and even the snowiness that the sunlight perfectly captured.
“It was a huge blessing, Clare said.” “It was a beautiful view and it was a lot like that throughout the whole (project). We really felt blessed, felt like Heavenly Father was really taking care of us.”
Celebrating the pioneers
As the artists traveled along the trail, they immersed themselves in pioneer experiences. They read books and journals about the trek. Sometimes they walked across ice, waded through rivers and camped out in their cars.
"Peace, Be Still" by Josh Clare. Many of Clare's paintings reference church hymns, and he tried to select titles for his art that would help his viewers connect with the stories behind the landscapes. | Provided by the Church History Museum
As they learned more about the pioneers, the artists discovered that Taylor's ancestors were part of the Martin Handcart Company and that Clare and Burton's ancestors were part of the rescue. This gave them a deeper bond and sense of purpose in completing this project, Burton said.
Bryon C. Andreasen, Church History Museum historian, had the task of finding journal entries to correspond with the artists’ paintings. The historical narrative these excerpts provide are essential to the exhibit’s message, Clare said. The artists purposely kept pioneer imagery out of their paintings in order for the selected journal entries to bring those stories to life.
“That was part of the vision from the very beginning,” Clare said. “The quotes are critical to helping people be in the right place spiritually or emotionally when they approach the paintings.”
Burton strives to create symbolism in his paintings that celebrates the faith of the pioneers. His stylistic use of light is a prevailing theme in his art, used to represent the direction and guidance of the Lord, he said.
"Faith (All is Well)" by John Burton. This painting is Burton's dedication to all the pioneers who passed on the trail, giving the ultimate sacrifice. | Provided by the Church History Museum
His painting, "Faith (All is Well)," depicts a flight of birds making an ascent from the harsh, snowy ground to the light and warmth of the sun. He painted it at Locust Creek, Iowa, the place where William Clayton penned the words that would become the hymn "Come, Come Ye Saints." As Burton worked on this painting, the following lyric came to his mind: "And should we die before our journey’s through, happy day, all is well."
"Faith (All is Well)" is Burton's "dedication to all the pioneers who passed on the trail, giving the ultimate sacrifice," he said.
Many of Clare's paintings also reference hymns. He said music has always been a powerful way for him to feel the spirit, and he tried to select titles for his art that would help his viewers connect with the stories behind the landscapes.
“(My titles) take something that people already have feelings or memories about and then attach it to this picture, and hopefully it gets them thinking about Christ and about the reason why the pioneers did this, and why they’re trying to have faith and trying to do what they believe,” Clare said.
It has been rewarding for the artists to share their faith through their talents and to see the Church History Museum do “such a fantastic job with the exhibit,” Burton said. He hopes that those who view the exhibit will be inspired to participate in the pioneer experience.
“It was amazing, but it was also really kind of natural the way everything came together,” Clare said. “My hope is that there will be people that come to the show wanting to get an answer to a prayer or to get direction in their life, and that somehow (the exhibit) will help them get an answer or will help strengthen their testimony or will kind of be the start of a spiritual experience for them.”
“If anyone could build a testimony, grow a testimony or feel the Spirit at this show, feel the Holy Ghost, that would be the most wonderful way our time and talents could ever be used,” Burton added.
The exhibit, titled "Saints at Devil's Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail," is open to the public and runs through August 2017, according to a news release. The Church Historian's Press has also published a book to accompany the exhibit, written by curator Laura Allred Hurtado and Andreasen. In addition to the paintings, the book includes essays and interviews sharing the artists' perspectives and insights.
If you go ...
When: exhibit open through August; museum open Monday–Friday 9 a.m.–9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Where: LDS Church History Museum, 45 N. West Temple