SALT LAKE CITY — His wife has lost much of her memory, and President Henry B. Eyring's effort to capture his memories with her makes a surprising new exhibit of his water colors especially poignant.
For 40 years, President Eyring has used his paintings to augment his written journal, capturing the feelings of a memory in a scene, in light, in shadows. Most often, the feeling he has sought to preserve is about a moment with Sister Kathleen Johnson Eyring.
"This is a journal of emotion," said President Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I can't resist trying to capture a memory or a feeling of a memory."
Watching him walk through the exhibit at the Church History Museum for the first time this week, it was clear that he has succeeded. Painting after painting animated him, bringing back a feeling of a memory.
And most were about Sister Eyring.
Exhibit curator Laura Allred Hurtado said 40 percent of his more than 1,000 water colors are ocean and sailing scenes, but President Eyring explained that each is tied to his wife.
"I'm in a boat phase right now," he said. "That's again because I sailed with Kathy. The ones I'm doing now are not memories so much as general feelings of what it was like on sailboats with Kathy. I'm in my sailboat phase."
Hurtado said the central theme of the exhibit, which opens Friday and runs through Jan. 21, is nostalgia and memories.
"I think there is something really meditative about the practice and something rich about his desire to bring back memories," she said. "I think there's something poetic to me that he focuses on memory when he's kept a journal for so long and his wife has lost so much of her memory."
President Eyring fully agreed that her memory loss adds to the exhibit's meaning.
For example, the couple once took a trip to Washington, D.C., but stopped in the Bahamas on the way when they realized the cost of their flight would be the same. Sister Eyring suggested they go sailing, and he balked because they didn't have a boat. She said they could rent one.
"It was only because of her enthusiasm that we went out," he said. "To this day I can't forget looking down out of that catamaran with her sailing in the Bahamas on the way to the White House because she said, 'We can do it, we've got time.' She was always that way. You're hoping that's what these can remind you, not just the wonderful times but the way she was, always into it and all the way in."
He said that as his memories with her are obviously in the past, his desire is to capture in his paintings what their life together was and look ahead with hope to the afterlife together.
"Now I don't know if there will be boats over there, don't get me wrong," he said, laughing, "but it's in the hope that if you really believe in sealings and if you really believe in the afterlife" he can relive these feelings with her again.
"That's why it's a little emotional to look at it because it's memories, but it's also the hope that the kinds of feelings you had in these things can go on again."
President Eyring lit up with joy at the sight of two paintings only to find himself crying as he told their stories.
The first shows Sister Eyring with two of their six children.
"That's how they really looked," he said. "That gets me!"
It reminded him of his wife and what they often called their "second family," the two girls, Elizabeth and Mary, they had after four boys — Henry, Stuart, Matthew and John.
"Kathy with the two little girls," he said wistfully. "Those girls are now grown up and gone and Kathy's in failing health. What a moment, four sons and then this, two girls."
The other was nearby on the same wall of the exhibit. It is from his imagination of what his wife might have looked like as an 8-year-old rowing her green rowboat. He was clearly moved by his love for her.
"That's hard for me," he said softly.
He began his journal 50 years ago, and included sketches in the margins. In 1979, he hurt his back surfing in Hawaii and bought a set of water colors.
"I went to buy some paints — my first paints — and I painted as I waited in a van, watching the boys surf," he said.
His first scene is of that beach.
"It's the first water color I ever did," he said. "Not bad for never having done a water color."
Annually, he printed his year's journal, bound it and gave it to his children. The exhibit of his paintings is now a companion piece, titled "A Visual Journal: The Artwork of Henry B. Eyring."
"These water colors are a record of the blessings that have come to our family," he said. "They are a heritage to the family."
Still, he said he is "embarrassed" to learn his pieces number more than 1,000 because of the time investment that represents. He has remained sensitive to the time he spends on each painting, the reason nearly all are the size of post cards. It's also the reason he chose water colors.
"Literally because it's faster," he said. "With an oil you can go back and back. In fact, you need to go back and add layers. With a water color, if you haven't got it in 20 minutes, you're not going to get it."
He said he first takes an idea and does a brief sketch, then does "a wash," lets it dry, and does another wash. In all, each piece takes about 20 minutes of painting.
The results were first exhibited last year by a reluctant President Eyring at BYU-Idaho. The occasion was the inauguration of his son Henry J. Eyring as the school's president, a position President Eyring held in the 1970s when the school was known as Ricks College.
The director of the Church History Museum said President Eyring was again reluctant at first to the idea of a second, larger exhibit in Salt Lake City.
"We're thrilled," Alan Johnson said. "It's a privilege. It was a success up in Idaho and we're grateful to bring it to more people down here."
The exhibit includes free postcard reprints of some of President Eyring's scenes that patrons will be able to take and send as thank-you notes.
His apostolic travel is another theme of the exhibit, which includes paintings of scenes from Pago Pago to Zimbabwe and from New England to the Cotswolds, "where," he said, "every water colorist wants to go."9 comments on this story
He isn't done, either. During an interview on Monday, he mentioned that he exchanged emails that morning with a granddaughter serving a church mission in Kobe, Japan. She said something that sparked an idea for another water color. He said he hoped to go from the interview back to his office and work on the idea during his lunch hour, his normal practice.
Hurtado curated the exhibit into seven major categories — portraits, the West, emotive landscapes, memory, religion, the ocean and travel.
In each, President Eyring said, he is trying to preserve a memory.
"These paintings are not a message so much as a memory, something to take me or the people I love back to a time, a sweet time," he said.
"I don't think of myself as an artist. I'm a guy who likes art and memories."