During the 1930s and ‘40s, Minerva Teichert painted the stories, symbols and shapes of her faith.
The artist, who trained with experts in Chicago and New York but lived the bulk of her life in rural Wyoming, always hoped her works would be viewed by members within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as by outsiders.
Curators at the Church History Museum in downtown Salt Lake City have worked hard to fulfill the celebrated painter’s dream in a new exhibit, “With This Covenant in My Heart: The Art and Faith of Minerva Teichert.”
It opened Thursday and runs to Aug. 3, 2024, showcasing 45 of her works.
In 1915, one of the young Teichert’s teachers, Robert Henri, asked her if anyone had told the “great Mormon story?”
When she replied that no one had done so in a manner she found satisfactory, he said, “Good heavens, girl, what a chance. You do it! You’re the one; oh, to be a Mormon. You’ll do it well.”
From that time forward, Riley M. Lorimer, director of the Church History Museum, said at a news conference Thursday, “she felt God needed her to tell the story of her people, so [Teichert] returned to the West and resolved to paint what she called ‘the things . . . which lie nearest to my heart.’”
Artist painted famed murals
Teichert, who died in 1976, was a “muralist, an early 20th-century artistic school that trained artists to paint important stories in public buildings,” said Laura Howe, one of the museum’s curators. Because she intended her paintings “to be seen from a distance of 30 feet, she did away with extraneous details. Her murals often include decorative elements like painted frames that reinforce the flatness of the wall she imagined them hanging on. Teichert’s muralist training was different from the illustrators who would dominate the style of church art that became popular in the 1960s, and many contemporary artists find the works she created 100 years ago fresh and exciting.”
That style sometimes feels “like permission for contemporary artists to find their own voice as they seek to express faith in Jesus Christ.”
Teichert created many of her 500-plus works over 45 years in her Cokeville, Wyo., living room, which is re-created in this exhibit.
She “may be the most widely reproduced and least-known woman artist in the LDS Church,” Marian Ashby Johnson wrote in 1988 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.”
Teichert’s images are widely seen and known by Latter-day Saints, with copies sold at church bookstores and historic sites, hanging on Brigham Young University’s campus and printed in magazines.
For this exhibit, Howe said, the museum tapped into the church’s Teichert collection, as well as borrowing from BYU and a few held in private hands.
Thanks to Teichert’s friend and agent Alice Merrill Horne, the artist’s works have hung in Latter-day Saint meetinghouses and in other church buildings like the Lion House and tabernacles, Howe said. Her work traced the gathering of humankind to Zion in a famed mural inside the Manti Temple. Some replica panels from that temple, currently being repaired and renovated, are in the exhibit.
Church removes pieces from chapels
In 2020, the church removed those that were in Latter-day Saint chapels in east Salt Lake City and Cokeville but promised that after the church’s planned exhibit, these paintings will have a “permanent spot in the Conference Center” or other places on Temple Square, Howe said at the time. They won’t just go into storage.
Turns out, two will be in temples, some will find a home on Conference Center walls, but most will, indeed, go into storage.
It’s important to strike a balance between “preserving and sharing,” Howe said Thursday. “We need to decide what the painting needs to make sure that it lasts for generations but also so that we can share it with those who love it so much.”
Three years ago, the curator said that each of those pieces removed from Cokeville would have a plaque, describing where they had hung and all about Teichert’s ties to the community.
Captions on those pieces in the exhibit don’t mention their original places.
“We decided we wanted to emphasize the narratives within the paintings, more than where they came from,” Howe explained. “That’s what viewers see on the walls.”
Not long after the art’s removal from Cokeville, Teichert relatives challenged the Utah-based church in court over ownership of the art.
The lawsuit focuses on 12 originals, which the estate accused the church of wrongfully assuming ownership over and relocating without authorization.
Tim Teichert, grandson of the artist and the estate’s representative, emphasized that while the legal action might name the church itself as a defendant, his frustration lies not with the faith’s leaders but with the church’s History Department and BYU’s art department.
He believes they are responsible for removing four original pieces — one in 2014 and three more in 2020 — from a Cokeville meetinghouse, where the artist and many of her descendants attended church services.
A second lawsuit is filed
Earlier this year, the Teichert estate filed another suit, this time against the church, BYU and Deseret Book and others, accusing them of illegally reproducing and profiting off of her art.
At the core is the question of who owns the copyrights to many of the late painter’s best-known works, including multiple depictions of Jesus Christ, Queen Esther and Mormon pioneers.
For years, replicas of these works have lined the halls of Latter-day Saint places of worship, while commercial outlets such as Deseret Book have profited off their sale.
There’s just one problem: Neither the artist nor her estate ever gave them permission to do so, according to the federal lawsuit filed Jan. 30 in California.
“In complete disregard for Minerva Teichert’s rights, and without authorization,” the suit states, the defendants “knowingly reproduced, distributed and displayed” her works.
Both cases are still pending, said Tim Teichert.
The church “owns the paintings at issue and has never used them in any manner contrary to the artist’s wishes,” spokesperson Sam Penrod reiterated Thursday. “The church will continue to defend its careful stewardship of these canonical pieces as the case moves through the legal process so that we may preserve and protect this artwork for generations to come.”
The exhibit shares that goal, Howe said, reaching “a new audience [with] the stories of her heart.”