Anyone who has seen the This Is The Place Monument at the mouth of Emigration Canyon or the Sea Gull Monument on Temple Square has seen the work of Mahonri M. Young.
For most people, that's about where their knowledge of this native son artist and sculptor ends. But not for Thomas Toone, whose recently published book, "Mahonri Young: His Life And Art" (Signature Books, $75), tells the story of this remarkable man. The book will receive this year's prestigious Evans Biography Award from the Mountain West Center at Utah State University on April 29.Such things are always debatable, but Toone says that Young is probably Utah's most famous artist, both nationally and internationally.
"He had an impressive reputation during his lifetime."
Unfortunately, says Toone, Young has been somewhat neglected in the past 40 years. A couple of factors come into play. One is the shifting trends of popularity in the art world - representationalism is out and modernism is in. And the other is that nothing has been done to promote awareness of Young's artistic contributions. But Toone would like to change all that. As a student at BYU, he studied Young, but the book is primarily based on his dissertation for his doctorate in art history at Penn State. Toone currently teaches art history at Utah State University.
Young is known mostly as a sculptor, but he was also a painter and a drawer. "I don't think most people realize how significant his contribution is," Toone says.
Mahonri Young was born Aug 9, 1877, in Salt Lake City, a son of Mahonri Moriancumer and Agnes Mackintosh Young, and a grandson of Brigham Young. He spent his first eight years living at the Deseret Woolen Mills, which were run by his father. But with his father's death, the family moved into town, and it was there as a teenager that Young received his first art instruction under James T. Harwood.
Young worked as a sketch artist for Salt Lake newspapers so he could earn enough money to study in the East. He left in 1899 for the Art Students League in New York City. This was followed in 1901 by studies at the Academie Julian in Paris.
Returning to Utah in 1905, Young tried to build a career as a sculptor, but commissions were hard to come by and funds were scarce. He decided that if he was going to have a career in art, he would have to move to New York City, which he did in 1910.
There he finally began to find both work and recognition, but he also maintained his ties with home and was pleased in 1912 when he received a commission from the LDS Church to do the Sea Gull Monument.
Over the next three decades, Young also received major commissions from the American Museum of Natural History, the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris and the 20th Century Fox Film Studios in Hollywood, Calif.
It was during this time, too, that he completed a series of bronzes of boxers that brought a great deal of recognition. In 1941, Life magazine referred to Young as "the George Bellows of American sculpture."
Then came the commission to do the This Is The Place Monument, to be unveiled as part of the church's centennial celebration of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers. Young's major competition for this commission was Utah sculptor Avard Fairbanks, and the selection process was long and somewhat frustrating. When Young was finally awarded the job, he was ecstatic. "This will fittingly memorialize, in an appropriate and substantial manner, the achievements of the Pioneers," he wrote to a friend. "I would rather have the This is the Place commission than any other that could come to me."
At the dedication of what Young referred to as "The Big Job," the sculptor was allowed a minute to speak. "My friends, in two weeks, come the ninth of August, I will be 70 years old. This is the greatest day of my life. I thank you," he told the audience.
One more major commission would come his way, however, and it was also a tribute to his famous grandfather: the Brigham Young statue for the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.
These large pieces are what Young is most known for, but his career included a vast amount of work. At his death in 1957, Toone says, "his estate alone included 320 pieces of sculpture, 590 oil paintings, 5,500 watercolors, 2,600 prints and thousands of drawings."
Although he worked extensively in other media, it was sculpture that brought him his first recognition and success as well as his largest and most important commissions. It was, Toone says, "the heart of his career." But Young's legacy includes more than just the works he left behind.
"It was Young and others who, at the beginning of the 20th century, brought sculpture off its pedestal and transformed it into a free and independent means of expression," Toone writes. Art historians feel one of the major trends of art during this time was to win for sculpture "the right to be as independent as easel painting."
Young's work, especially his small bronzes of laborers and prize fighters, played a significant role in the push for independence and free form, Toone says. "This alone has assured him a significant place in the history of American sculpture."
In writing his book, Toone had access to Young's personal journals and correspondence. These were extensive because in his later life, Young began writing his life history with the idea of getting it published. Toone also had materials collected by Young's friend Jack Sears, who also had ideas of writing a book about the sculptor. Neither of those books came to print, but the materials provide a great deal of insight into and detail of Young's life.
In choosing the book for the Evans Award, judges noted that it is "an elegant book, tells us about the man, his art and a western culture."
"He was quite an individual," says Toone, who over the course of writing the book has come to know Young quite well. "He was a very charismatic figure." Toone admires Young's work and values the contribution he made to 20th century art. But, as much as anything, he admires Young's tenacity. Young was not the first Utahn to study in Paris, but he had to do it all on his own. His family was not wealthy, and the church did not pay his way. "He could have given up so many times," Toone says. "He really worked very hard."
In summing up his own life, Young wrote: "The challenge to everyman's conscience is to choose for his life's work the thing he loves to do, and once he has decided upon a course, he must work conscientiously to learn about it. There is in the heart of an ambitious, sincere man - to do well - that which in his honest opinion he knows to be right." And that message, too, as much as the tribute to the Mormon pioneers, is etched in stone and bronze at the mouth of Emigration Canyon.