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Art of hearing, seeing pioneer stories through fresh eyes

Published July 24, 2012 12:06 am

Getting to the truth can be hard when history is so often "sugar-coated," novelist says.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Author Sandra Dallas' first exposure to the mythic story of Mormons crossing the plains was seeing the Handcart Pioneer statue on Temple Square.

"I would go to the temple grounds and I'd see that statue and I'd think about those people," said Dallas, a historical novelist and journalist who lived in Salt Lake City as a teen, graduating from East High. "I think it is such a familiar story and has been so couched in terms of faith and triumph that people sometimes don't go beyond that and see the real stories of the terrors, the horrible things that happened. Going beyond that is the challenge as a writer. And, for some people, the challenge as a reader."

That statue and other artistic representations of Western settlement have become almost cliches in a state where teenagers voluntarily push handcarts across a dusty stretch of desert as a character-building activity.

As Wallace Stegner wrote: "The tradition of the pioneer that is strong all through the West is a cult in Utah."

Beyond the romance of history • Many of the locally repeated stories of the Western pioneer movement are built on what Dallas and others might term "sugar-coated" history. "I think a lot of people feel that that's the way the story should be told," she said. "And maybe that's it. Maybe there are two ways to tell the story — one from the standpoint of faith and one from the standpoint of history."

Dallas, who lives in Colorado, took on the challenge of finding a fresh approach to a familiar story. Her novel, True Sisters, which was released in April, follows women brought together on their harrowing journey as part of the ill-fated Martin Handcart Company in 1856.

Dallas' approach was two-fold: to tell the story from the point of view of the women, and to focus on just how tough the journey actually was.

"There's a lot of romance, if you will, connected with it," she said. "It's seen as a story of great faith and sacrifice and triumph. But, in fact, it was a rotten experience. This is really a story of women in the West. This is really an American story."

Dallas wondered whether it was "presumptuous to write about somebody else's religion," but eventually decided to consider her outsider status as an advantage. "I did not feel the constraints of whether my church would approve or disapprove."

Her approach, however, is similar to the one taken by Utah painter Al Rounds, an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He, too, tries to bring the Mormon pioneer experience alive by following paths less taken.

"Sometimes I'll learn some part of our history that was really important that I've never heard anybody talk about. So I think to myself, 'How can I say that? If it's important, how can we talk about that?'"

More than just 'nice' images • Rounds works to find fresh views that he can translate onto canvas. "For some reason, when you can express something visually, it becomes more meaningful for them," Rounds said. "They walk away with a new way of looking at things. That's kind of what I do for a living."

His collections include paintings of LDS temples, church founder Joseph Smith, church historic sites and pioneers pulling handcarts. But he is, perhaps, most proud of paintings that depict less familiar scenes and people. "I do a lot of paintings of pioneers [who] had a huge, huge impact on people getting into the valley whose names were not written in the histories," Rounds said.

He's done paintings of the English farm that early church member Job Pingree leased out, using the proceeds to begin the LDS Church's Perpetual Immigration Fund. "I bet you've never heard of Job Pingree, have you?" Rounds asked.

He's created paintings of the Brigham Young home in Salt Lake City's Liberty Park — a house that was actually built by Isaac Chase.

"How many people run around Liberty Park every day enjoying those ponds and not knowing that they were hand-dug and the trees were hand-planted as seedlings by Isaac Chase? And that his mill kept everybody alive the winter after those crickets [destroyed the pioneers' crops]? I've done paintings of the house and tried to kind of tell the story. There's a ton of stuff like that. Those are the fun things that I learn from my paintings. And I hope other people see more than just a nice picture, too."

The painter could tell stories by doing paintings of Brigham Young and other prominent, recognizable church figures, but Rounds considers that "the easy way." And, in many cases, the easy way might be easily forgettable.

The challenge of art • Paul Larsen, the author of the play "The Raid: The Trial of George Q. Cannon," said he struggled to take a balanced approach to a topic for which passions run high — polygamy. He acknowledged that anything that even raising the topic at the time of the 1996 production was akin to "a stick in the eye."

"Here in this community, you have people who are LDS and are very much enmeshed in the story — the official story," said Larsen, an adjunct assistant professor of screenwriting at the University of Utah who has also taught at Brigham Young University. "And for them, it's a little threatening to wander outside that because their beliefs are hanging on those things. And I can understand that. On the other hand, you have a community here that's antagonistic to Mormons" who also have strong feelings about polygamy.

"The Raid," commissioned by the Utah State Bar for the state's centennial, was based on the 1888 polygamy trial of George Q. Cannon, a church leader. The drama raised questions about the rights of the state versus the rights of the individual and took on the subject of plural marriage from multiple angles — including questioning the conventional wisdom that while it was a hardship for women, it was great for men.

"Everyone admires pioneers; polygamy makes people uncomfortable," Larsen said. "It's not an easy topic to tackle, but I think that made it worthwhile. Art is supposed to challenge people."

And, as far he's concerned, art shouldn't take the easy way out.

"It's easier to trivialize a thing," Larsen said. "It's more challenging to try to make them think about their long-held views."

spierce@sltrib.com

About the artists

For information about writer Sandra Dallas's book True Sisters, visit http://www.sandradallas.com.

For information about Utah painter Al Rounds' handcart painting, visit http://www.alrounds.com and search for "Trial of Hope...Last Hill." (Full disclosure: Arts editor Ellen Fagg Weist is a cousin of Al Rounds, and she suggested a list of nearly a dozen sources for this original story.)

For more about writer Paul Larsen, visit his biography page as a University of Utah adjunct assistant professor of screenwriting at http://bit.ly/NA97RA.

Pioneer Day pleasures

For our listing of July 24th events around the state of Utah, visit http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle and search for the headline: "Handcarts, parades and fireworks."