This past weekend was absolutely gorgeous outside. The temperature was warmer, the sun was shining, and the sky was clear! So we decided to visit an interesting but hidden spot in Salt Lake, Gilgal Sculpture Garden.
The garden was created by Thomas Child, Jr. over a span of 18 years until his death. A masonry contractor by trade, Child wanted to use his skills to celebrate his Latter Day Saint (LDS) faith and encourage others to think about life’s mysteries. Child traveled around the state searching for boulders and stones he could use in his creations. Many of the features on his pieces were carved by sculptor Maurice Brooks using an oxyacetylene torch, a technique developed by Child’s son-in-law and assistant, Bryant Higgs. The garden is certainly eclectic; it’s a collection of twelve sculptures and more than seventy slabs of stone inscribed with passages from the Bible and Book of Mormon, philosophical texts, and even poetry.
After Child’s death in 1963, the garden became the property of private owners, until 2000, when Friends of Gilgal Garden, with the support of several local foundations and private donors, was able to purchase the garden and make it available to the public. It is the only “visionary art environment” in Utah.
The garden is unassuming at first. All but hidden from the street and nestled behind a couple residential homes, its entrance isn’t announced with a flashy sign. Rather, only those in the know or the curious would dare enter the black iron gate and proceed down the sidewalk to see what awaits.
The garden is fairly small and feels like an oasis amid the cranes and condominium construction next door. Each piece requires some familiarity with Biblical characters and stories (these I feel are a little more mainstream) along with an understanding of LDS doctrine (of which I have minimal knowledge). As we entered the main area of the garden, we were immediately greeted with two jarring sights, the Sphinx and Captain of the Lord’s Host.
Captain of the Lord’s Host represents the captain who appeared to Joshua before the Battle of Jericho while the Sphinx represents Child’s belief that the answers to life’s mysteries can only be answered through faith. The face on the Sphinx is that of Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church. Child believed that the LDS priesthood was where the answers to life’s mysteries were discovered and relayed to the rest of humanity.
Those initial statues immediately catch your eye as you enter the park and set the tone for the pieces that follow. Then the park opens up to the east and the majority of the sculptures can be found on that side. Each sculpture requires some work from the eye in order to catch the larger work along with the details. At the park’s entrance there is a walking guide so you can read along at each stop. We decided to go in blind and read later. The sculptures, and the park as a whole, make a little more sense when you know Child’s intent behind each piece. And yet, I found that I enjoyed some of the artwork without knowing his intent and was disappointed when I later read the meaning behind it.
Note: I found some of the pieces, for want of a better word, creepy. It’s an eclectic collection and the atmosphere of the park certainly gives off a strange energy.
The following sculptures were situated around a cluster of boulders behind the Sphinx. Some details were hidden behind separate works while others were obvious but the meaning wasn’t clear. My favorite was the scattered body parts of the giant from King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream which was artistically interesting on its own. The sculptures in this area relied heavily on an intimate knowledge of the Bible with some familiarity of LDS beliefs. I have included brief explanations of each piece in the captions but more in depth descriptions can be found at http://gilgalgarden.org/.
Beyond that initial cluster of sculptures, there were some more substantial pieces which continued to proclaim Child’s devotion to his faith. Child created a four-piece Monument to the Priesthood which remains unfinished. He planned to carve a large purple boulder into a globe and place it on top of the books which signify the four significant texts in LDS faith. He also salvaged eagle sculptures from Salt Lake’s Bamberger Railway Station to demonstrate his patriotism.
Finally, Child created a self-portrait in which he showcased his two great loves – faith and masonry. Child hand-cut the flagstones and anchored the canopy to a 62-ton stone. Brooks created the man with brick pants and a stone jacket. Tucked under each arm rests a symbol of Child’s life’s devotion: a Bible and blueprints. His tools surround his figure while an image of the LDS 10th Ward – where he served as a Bishop – is hanging behind him. It’s an impressive sight and it looms over the visitor.
All in all, Gilgal Sculpture Garden is a fun way to spend some time in downtown Salt Lake. Despite the heavy spiritual influence, anyone can visit and enjoy a stroll around the garden gazing upon funky sculptures. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing a statue with brick pants?