Look to Your Children, Look to Yourselves
Minerva K. Teichert (1888-1976), a well-loved and celebrated painter of Western American tradition, has long been considered the pioneer of LDS art. Born in North Ogden, Utah, but raised the majority of her life in her family’s Pocatello, Idaho homestead, she developed a passion for painting at an early age and continued her art education at the Art Institute of Chicago (Minerva). Among her favorite subjects to paint were murals and portraits of domestic and wild life, of pioneers, of the American Indian and most notably, of key events in The Book of Mormon (Pinborough).
While her contemporaries delved into such genres, movements and styles as social realism, American expressionism and abstract impressionism to expose social and political views of the times, Teichert was content to paint spiritual scenes in her own unique style. According to Gardner, Teichert felt it was her duty to depict the Book of Mormon story in her paintings so that “he who runs may read,” meaning that one should be able to understand the story just by a cursory glance of the artwork (Infanger). Indeed, many of the canvases in her collection at BYU are large murals which tell such stories through earthy hues, contrasts of red and well-balanced portraits, but one stands out in size and presentation from the others: Look to Your Children.
Look to Your Children, at only 39 by 28 inches, is a beautiful oil on canvas which illustrates 3 Nephi 17:11-24. Completed in 1948, Teichert interpreted this passage by showing “female angels descending in a graceful curve to join Christ in ministering to the children” (Welch 146). As Welch informs us, the angels closely resemble Christ (who washes the face of a child in the center of the canvas) in order to convey their unity with the will and purpose of God while the children represent “three generations that will be unified in righteousness and by their faith in Christ” (Welch 146). However, this description only brushes the surface of a far deeper and symbolic message delivered by the artist. Through her inspired use of contrasting color, purposeful lines and differing depictions of characters, Teichert suggests and depicts how a fallen world shrouded in obscurity can regain its connection with its spiritual and heavenly origins, thus overcoming spiritual death.
Color. As previously stated, Christ and the angels are almost identical in their portrayal. All clothed in white robes, with long, straight and blonde hair, the angels blend with each other to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish the outlines of their individual bodies. They seem to melt together, becoming one shape, suggesting that they are not only united in purpose as Welch states, but united in identity. Through this blending and imagery, the angels become a symbol of the collective force of Heaven, of all that is good and of a higher state. By contrast, the children are represented through dark, earthy hues, are mainly brunette and even fade into the shadowy background. This equates them with the brown, red and dirty earth and reveals that they too are united in identity. Therefore, if the angels represent the spiritual realm, the children must represent mortality, a fallen world devoid of God, light and exaltation.
Teichert further reinforces the differences of these two groups by not blending the intersection points separating the outer edges of the angels with the children. This shows in a literal and figurative way that the forces of Heaven and the fallen do not mix or are incapable of interaction. However, by studying the red halo surrounding the central angel, who is presumably Christ, one sees an exception to this oil and water rule. While Christ retains all qualities and properties of the Heavenly force, He is also touching and fading into the red, dirty hues which belong to the mortals. This red halo visually shows that Christ is capable of interacting with the fallen while maintaining His God-like status, becoming a Mediator between this world and that of Heaven. As confirmed in 2 Nephi 2:8, no flesh can stand in the presence of God without the divine intervention and Atonement of the Holy Messiah, showing that through the “merits” of Christ, Heaven is able to interact with its children.
Lines. In addition to the red halo, lines illustrate the important role of Christ as Mediator. When first looking at the painting, the eye is naturally drawn down the sweep of angels to Christ washing the face of a child. The effect of this downward curve emphasizes that the pathway from Heaven only reaches mortals by the cleansing Atonement of Christ Himself. Yet Teichert shows us that even this is not enough to guarantee connection with Heaven. Notice the child on the lower right portion of the canvas; her gaze is not towards the ministering angels, but is focused on the ground. This signifies that she is not yet ready to receive Christ as her Redeemer, being more interested in worldly matters than spiritual ones. Interestingly enough, only the child to her left, and not an angel, is attempting to get her attention on the heavenly hosts by pointing towards them, showing that the other children are not forced to look up by the angels, but choose to do so on their own accord after hearing the Gospel from fellow mortals. The viewer can then conclude that active faith in Jesus Christ is required on the part of the fallen to access higher spiritual realms.
Likewise, details and patterns on the children’s clothes represent the mortal’s quest to align their faith with Christ. Vertical stripes, much like a church steeple, often represent a connecting point between the world and Heaven, and help the observer to understand that the pathway between the two is attained through mortals looking up, or believing in Christ. But not every child who is wearing stripes is conforming to this rule, such as the one girl already mentioned who is focused on the ground. This is where the symbolism of the vessel of water reveals what leads certain individuals to look up while others are distracted. In John 4:13-14, the Savior explains to a woman at Jacob’s well that “whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but… shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” The living water contained in this basin represents the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is given to the children by Jesus Christ and His angels. By drinking this water, the children can look up and receive the blessings of eternal life, and then are authorized to share this water with their fellow mortals who have not received the Word. The horizontal lines that decorate the basin must symbolize the spreading of the Gospel upon the face of the Earth, which enables individuals who “partake” of it to align themselves vertically with God’s commandments.
Detailed depictions of characters. But how do we know for sure that Teichert wasn’t just painting a Book of Mormon story? Are there any clues that suggest the children truly represent more than just “three generations” of righteous people in the Americas? I believe that through the face of one child, Teichert applies her work to everyone of all generations. Directly between Christ and the vessel of water is a child who differs greatly from the rest. Facing the audience, she shows off dark eyes, a smiling mouth and a button-like nose that are more detailed than any other child or angel pictured. Her hair is stylishly parted to the side, while her sleeves appear puffy and her striped dress flare. This is in contrast with the other children with messy or undefined hair, sleeves that are cut at the shoulder and robes falling straight to the ground. She seems more like a 1940s child than a child from the pages of the Book of Mormon, which might make her either a symbol of modern days, an acquaintance of Teichert or the two. This means the painting can and should apply to nowadays as well as in times of old.
Furthermore, her gazing at the audience seems to show that this painting applies to whoever is viewing the artwork, which means that the intended effect of this painting was to send a broad message about the power of Christ. The child seems to tell us through her smile that we too can experience such a miraculous event, enjoying the light and warmth of Heaven if we “partake” of the living waters and express deep faith in Christ. One could even argue that she, like the child pointing to the angels, is inviting us to look towards Christ to receive the blessings of eternal life and meld with the Heavenly force.
With her simplistic large murals, Teichert intended her art to express and teach to those who “ran by” certain key events of the Book of Mormon. Look to Your Children illustrates a moment when the Resurrected Christ and a host of angels ministered to children who had anticipated His arrival after the three days of darkness that followed His crucifixion. As seen through the various techniques analyzed within this paper, she also communicated that the only way a fallen world can overcome spiritual death is by looking towards Christ and applying His cleansing Atonement while on Earth. And yet Christ is somewhat hidden in the painting, and can only be found upon close inspection on the viewer’s part. Why would the artist hide the very core point of the Book of Mormon story when she wants to teach those who don’t know it her fundamental beliefs?
Perhaps, like a missionary, she wanted to teach others who had differing religious views without offending them. Although Christ is an important spiritual figure of Christian religions, He is not the center nor core of everyone else’s lives. There are many in this world who identify as Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and even atheists who have valid opinions and could possibly come across her artwork. If Christ were to be pictured in a flashy and bold manner, others who didn’t believe in Him would undoubtedly be pushed away from understanding her message, just as Christians may shy away from artwork containing a Buddha. By blending Christ with those who surround Him, all people can appreciate its beauty without feeling that his or her religion is being challenged. The viewer can then discover universal truths that apply to any religion, culture and time period.
The children therefore also represent mankind who has struggled to find its origins and destinies in a muddled and confusing world. We have searched through science, religion and other people our identities, trying to understand how we fit in with the universe. The angels therefore symbolize the forms of enlightenment that we as individuals use to explain the meaning of life. We are also reminded by the distracted child that not everyone shares similar views, and are invited by the girl who stares back at us, to put ourselves in the picture and imagine what the artwork means as a whole to us.
Look to Your Children reminds us that both truth and error is found within every religion, culture, time period and philosophy, and suggests that the key to discovering our personal truths is by first “looking” or searching it out for ourselves.
Throughout the exhibit, I found it hard to emotionally connect with her paintings mainly because it was not in my favorite style. I tend to be very judgmental about pieces of art, and found it very difficult at first to find a painting that spoke to me. Although I could see beautiful usage of symbols in her imagery, and understood all the stories they presented, I rushed through the exhibit, dismissing the majority for my project. It wasn’t until I saw the painting hidden in a corner labeled Look to Your Children that I stopped to appreciate its fine details.
What inspired me the most was the near logarithmic spiral that so many artists have used throughout the ages to express beauty in nature. This swirl of angels resembled Starry Night by Van Gogh, while the mass of children looked a lot like the dark and misty city found below the majestic night sky. I was able to compare and contrast these two works and decided that both signified a certain connection between spiritual and temporal realms. Backing up a few feet, I noticed that the swirl of angels looked just like the white swirl of yin, and the children resembled the black swirl of yang, proving that these two groups were polar opposites. That being said, one of the most important features of yin/yang philosophy is the dots of opposite color found on each side. They show that there is always an element of the opposite within the self. This element was Jesus Christ, who was both the little bit of Heaven in Earth and the little bit of Earth in Heaven that connected the two opposites and enabled a certain harmony within the painting itself.
Like was intended by Teichert herself, I quickly “ran” and “read” each piece, making it through the majority of the museum within five minutes and understanding each picture on a cursory glance. But what was inspiring in studying Look to Your Children was when I realized that Teichert wanted to also include something for those that stopped and scrutinized her artwork. I was one of those people. Her painting made me reflect on my own philosophies and even those of the world. Just as missionaries of various religions describe their gospel as simply as possible for investigators, Teichert illustrated scenes in an easily decipherable way. But just as those who are drawn in and desire to search for a deeper meaning, she included details that could only be seen by careful study and reflection. Teichert was a missionary, and it was then, at the BYU Museum of Art that I understood that she had accomplished all that she wanted to do with her artwork. Like the child who points towards the angels, she successfully got those “runners” like me to stop and admire the curve of angels that nourished me spiritually.
Infanger, Garrick. “Minerva Teichert: But I Will Be Someday.” The Krakens, 30 Jan. 2017. The Krakens, http://www.thekrakens.com/2017/01/minerva-teichert/. Accessed 20 February 2017.
“Minerva Teichert.” LDSart. LDSArt.com, 20 Feb. 2017.
Pinborough, Jan Underwood. “Minerva Kohlhepp Teichert: With a Bold Brush.” The Ensign, April 1989, www.lds.org. Accessed 25 Feb. 2017.
Welch, John W. and Doris R. Dant. “The Book of Mormon Paintings of Minerva Teichert.” BYU Studies, 19 Aug. 2009. Print.