When Tim Teichert entered the chapel earlier this month in his Cokeville Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, which had been closed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, to his horror, he spied empty spaces on the wall where two large paintings by his grandmother had hung.
Famed artist Minerva Teichert, who lived most of her married life in the tiny Wyoming town, had hung two of her original works — “Cast Your Net to the Other Side” and “Handcart Pioneers” — there herself in the 1960s, even pasting them to the wall.
In an instant, the grandson knew who had removed them: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ own History Department.
The move was the culmination of years of wrangling over Teichert paintings that have remained in meetinghouses across Wyoming, Utah and Idaho.
It raises questions about who owns these works — when there are few bills of sale or when individual donors buy them for specific settings. It also highlights issues around the purpose of religious art, the intent of the artists, and the best places for the pieces to be kept.
In church buildings, they become part of a sacred worship experience, especially when local believers have a personal connection to the artist. They influence how congregants view the scriptures, for instance, helping to bring figures and stories to life for those whose faith is formed in such spaces. The number of people affected by the works, however, remains relatively small.
In a museum or gallery, on the other hand, paintings can be preserved, secured and seen by many, possibly thousands. There, they are appreciated for their beauty, talent and expressiveness, but more as a passive and momentary encounter rather than an ongoing connection.
The relative strength of placement is an ongoing conversation among museum curators currently discussing a vast collection of Russian art that was acquired from that country after the breakup of the Soviet Union, says Rita Wright, director of the Springville Museum of Art, and many experts believe they belong back in their cultural milieu, where viewers can readily relate.
Despite working for a museum, Wright believes the same about the Teichert works that have been housed for decades in Latter-day Saint buildings.
“I want to see these pieces in their original homes,” she says. The church has “ripped them from the community that provided the background and context for meaning.”
It’s like uprooting a delicate flower, Wright says. “You can transplant it, but it never regains the same strength it had in its original site.”
The church has every right to remove art from its chapels, says Tim Teichert, the executor of the Herman A. and Minerva K. Teichert estate, but believes his grandmother’s works should go back to the family or to the donors who bought them for a particular space.
Marian Wardle, retired director of the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, can see both sides.
“As a granddaughter [of the artist], I just feel like those paintings belong in Cokeville, and I also like seeing the Salt Lake City ones [in churches],” Wardle says. “As a curator, our duty was to display and preserve — and I know what needs to be done to preserve art. If you don’t preserve the work, only those in this generation will see it.”
Wardle weighs those two values, she says, “and it is very hard.”
In an ideal world, the paintings would be conserved and then given back to the chapels where they were hanging, she says, if the people who meet there would provide climate control, lighting and security.
But that, Wardle says, “would take a lot of money.”
That’s not likely to happen, says Alan Johnson, director of the Church History Museum, whose department plans to remove three more Teicherts in coming days from an east Salt Lake City meetinghouse.
Johnson feels for the family and the community’s loss of the paintings, he says. but the church’s governing First Presidency has directed the museum to gather them and replace them with giclees (digital prints) for their own safety and a planned exhibit.
A passion to paint
Minerva Teichert, who created many of her more than 500 works over 45 years in her Cokeville living room, “may be the most widely reproduced and least-known woman artist in the LDS Church,” Marian Ashby Johnson writes in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “... She created these in a virtual vacuum ... with no associates who understood her effort to translate Mormon values into art, no professional art community to reinforce her efforts or pose as a critical foil for her work, and no warmly appreciative audience of admiring patrons. She had to rely on her own sure sense of self to give her the impetus necessary for her energetic, imaginative, and prolific output.”
These days, Teichert’s images are widely seen and known by Latter-day Saints, with copies sold at church bookstores and historic sites, hanging on BYU’s campus and printed in magazines.
“She’s done more to exemplify women’s role in our gospel than nearly any woman, up to the very recent time,” says Allison Dayton, whose husband’s grandfather was Teichert’s bishop in Cokeville. “She put women in the front of the scripture stories as the heroes and the strength. Women are almost always the focus of her art.”
Tim Teichert agrees.
“She saw the strength of women at a time in our history when others didn’t,” he says. “She was able to portray Mary Fielding Smith [of early Mormon history] and [biblical figures] Queen Esther, Mary and Martha in a powerful way.”
His grandmother was “at least 80 years before her time,” says Teichert. “What makes it so unique is that her art is not a photo of a landscape or a portrait of an individual, but there’s always a story. And no matter who she is painting, she always represents them with dignity — whether it is Native Americans or Spanish dancers, whether it was the sinners or saints.”
Minerva used Reed Dayton, the bishop, as her model for Jesus, Teichert says, “not because he looked like Christ, but because he was the most Christlike individual she had ever met.”
His grandfather, Herman, who wasn’t a Latter-day Saint when the couple married but later converted, was the model for the Apostle Peter in “Cast Your Net to the Other Side.”
Johnson, the church museum director, says the devastating 2010 fire at the Provo Tabernacle, in which a Teichert original was lost, became a catalyst for action.
The Utah-based church launched a massive effort by a joint team of physical facilities officials, risk management personnel and historians to catalog every piece of art in any Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, historic site and visitor center in the United States and Canada, including paintings, sculptures and stained-glass windows, eventually amassing a tally of more than 5,200 works. On that list were 10 Teichert masterpieces that needed to be restored and preserved.
“We said to the presiding bishop [who oversees the faith’s material holdings], ‘We are happy to train local facilities managers about how best to preserve them where they are,’” Johnson recalls. But looking at how many people had access to them and the conditions of the buildings, authorities issued the directive to “bring them in” to church headquarters.
A Teichert family group challenged the church’s ownership, especially the Cokeville paintings, Johnson says, so leaders pushed “pause” on the removals.
The family reached out to the late Latter-day Saint apostle L. Tom Perry, whose wife, Barbara Dayton Perry, grew up in Cokeville and whose father was the model for Christ.
In an email to Charles Dayton, a grandson and Perry’s nephew, the apostle wrote: “I visited with Elder [Steven] Snow, [then church historian and recorder] and if you don’t already know, you will be happy to know, the two paintings in the chapel will not be taken but remain as is.”
Still believing that the church has ownership of the paintings, the museum resumed its campaign this year to gather them as the timeline for the exhibit grew nearer.
The Cokeville Arts Council had received a grant from the Wyoming Arts Council to promote Teichert’s work through art shows.
“We have provided tours of the church since that time to art groups and others interested in her work and history,” says Charles Dayton. “With the loss of the originals, there would be no reason to continue these tours. With this action, half of the Cokeville public art collection and all of the religious art was removed from this community. This was the closest thing Cokeville will ever have to an art museum.”
Who owns the art?
A Latter-day Saint stake in east Salt Lake City, which did not want to be named to help protect the paintings, had five Teichert paintings — “Rescue of the Lost Lamb,” which was in a high council room; “Fishers of Men,” in the foyer of one ward; “Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem,” in the foyer of another ward; and two paintings, “Shepherds of Bethlehem Tending Their Flocks Under a Starry Night Sky” and “Three Women Encountering an Angel at the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea,” in the chapel.
The first two have been removed, Johnson says, but the action had nothing to do with the faith’s recent edict about art in foyers being exclusively approved images of Jesus.
“The Teichert painting in our building truly made our building special. It was part of the history of our building and we all had a deep appreciation for the painting, the artist, and how the painting made us feel about the love of Christ,” says Jennifer Schiel, an art teacher and stake member. “Original paintings have a quality that can never be duplicated in a giclee. Wherever the original is taken, it will not be loved or appreciated more than it was by all the members who loved and worshipped alongside it every Sunday. We always felt grateful to be the stewards over such a lovely piece of art.”
Harold Bennett, who had been president of the old ZCMI department store, bought the Teichert works for the Salt Lake City ward that still has three of them, and then was responsible for the placement in the chapel.
“They’ve been there all of my 80-plus years in the ward,” says Bennett’s only remaining child, Stephen Bennett.
In recent years, the works have been “cleaned and repaired professionally on numerous occasions ...[including] when the paintings were on loan to BYU a few years ago,” Bennett writes in a letter to LeGrand Curtis, current church historian. “They’ve also been insured for their appraised value and bolted to the wall to protect against theft.”
Like the Teichert family, Bennett says, he would be willing to loan the paintings to the church for its 2021 Teichert exhibit but would like to see them returned to the chapel.
“I have difficulty appreciating that people seeing these paintings, mixed with many others, would find the same joy and endearing emotions that members of the ... ward would have by experiencing them at least once a week,” he writes. “I feel it is wrong, unethical, and perhaps unlawful for the church to assume ownership and take from the ... ward these valuable treasures that belong solely to the ward.”
Johnson, the church museum director, disputes the ownership claims made by Bennett and the Teicherts. Because the paintings hang in buildings owned and operated by the church, he says, they belong to the church.
“We looked at ownership very closely,” Johnson says. “The loss of the painting in Provo, while it was in the building, it was the church’s responsibility to preserve and care for it. The same applies to art in any meetinghouse.”
The timing of the paintings’ removal had nothing to do with the pandemic. It was necessary to prepare for the 2021 Teichert show.
“We worked with local leaders to make this a win-win,” he says. “As art people, we know this is passionate. We take very seriously that people have ties and want to make it work.”
After the exhibit, these paintings will have a “permanent spot in the Conference Center” or other places on Temple Square, says Laura Howe, the museum’s art curator. They won’t just go into storage. “We are excited for them to hang where many, many more people can see and appreciate them.”
With each piece, there will be a plaque, describing where they had hung in Cokeville and all about Teichert’s ties to the community.
“It is important to say where these paintings have been,” Howe says. “That’s a part of her story.”
But neither a print nor a plaque can capture his lifelong experience with the paintings right there in his chapel, says Tim Teichert. A part of his grandmother will be missing.