Insight into Arnold Friberg's Book of Mormon paintings

Published: Monday, May 21 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Actually, the idea came from Adele Cannon Howells, the church’s general president of the Primary from 1943 to 1951. She was impressed by Friberg’s 1950 piece, “Pioneer Sunday School.” Motivated by a deep love for the Primary children, Howells personally commissioned Friberg to create the collection to mark the 50th year of “The Children’s Friend” magazine. The 12 paintings, $1,000 apiece, were scheduled to run each month during the magazine’s 50th year, although they ended up taking much longer.

Friberg knew it would be a challenge.

“It was a startling task to undertake, for the Book of Mormon had never been illustrated before, at least on any professional level,” Friberg wrote. “There were no precedents.”

Howells arranged payment for the paintings on her death bed and passed before she could see a sketch.

“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,” Friberg wrote. “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. … For without her vision, her generosity, and her dogged determination, these paintings would never have existed.”

Sister LaVern Watts Parmley succeeded Howells as the Primary general president and carried the project through to its completion. Howells’ family later donated the paintings to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Getting started

Friberg turned to LDS Church leaders for historical and doctrinal suggestions, questions about antiquity and archeological findings, hair length and clothing, but was surprised to find their opinions varied, according to a 2005 BYU Studies article by Robert T. Barrett and Susan Easton Black.

“And with that variation grew a personal frustration in attempting to paint another’s visual interpretation of scripture when he had thoughts of his own,” the article states.

Many suggested that Friberg should illustrate great sermons, such as those given by Alma and King Benjamin. While Friberg acknowledged the inspiring sermons, “he wanted to paint heroes that appeared legendary in stature,” which was consistent with Howells’ vision. From that basis came the 12 powerful scenes.

“The muscularity in my paintings is only an expression of the spirit within,” Friberg said in an interview with Black. “When I paint Nephi, I’m painting the interior, the greatness, the largeness of spirit. Who knows what he looked like? I’m painting a man who looks like he could actually do what Nephi did.”

The models

Maxine Howser told the following story about her father, Max A. Bryan, in a 2010 interview with Deseret News reporter Michael De Groote.

In 1954, Bryan was called as a stake president in Long Beach, Calif., and invited to an event at Brigham Young University. While sitting next to Cleon Skousen at a luncheon, he noticed a man staring at his face. The man was introduced to Bryan as Arnold Friberg.

The artist explained he was painting scenes from the Book of Mormon and wondered if he could use Bryan’s face as a model. Skousen had a key to the campus photo lab and three hours later, Friberg had a file of photos of Bryan's face. The men never crossed paths again.

In the decades that followed, Bryan delighted in guiding tours at the Los Angeles California Temple and showing visitors Friberg’s paintings. Looking for and finding Bryan’s facial features in many of the 12 paintings, especially his jaw line, nose and lips, became a source of great pride in his family.

“People would say, ‘oh President Bryan, that looks like you,’ and he would smile and say, ‘oh, it is,’” Howser said before she died early this year. “I see a lot of my father’s face in Nephi ('Young Nephi Subdues His Rebellious Brothers') and get goose bumps every time I look at it.”

Heidi W. Friberg, the artist’s second wife, confirmed Howser’s story.

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