"I painted usually after they were tucked into bed at night. I must paint. It's a disease."
Minerva Teichert, 1947
Minerva Teichert (1888-1976) was a woman ahead of her time. Fiercely devoted to family and church, she also realized a successful painting career, balancing all three - family, church and career - with an efficiency that would be the envy of any '90s woman.
As a fitting testament to her belief and talent, the BYU Museum of Art is exhibiting "That He Who Runs May Read: Minerva Teichert's Book of Mormon Paintings" through May 16. The show's title comes from a biblical passage incorporated by early 20th-century muralists, suggesting that even those who hurried past the art would be able to understand the story.
The more than 40 murals and oil sketches synopsize Teichert's unique perspective of the Book of Mormon, an LDS scriptural account of an offshoot tribe of Israel in America. The people who inhabit Teichert's version of the story are - as might be expected - very different from the popular, muscle-bound figures envisioned by Arnold Friberg.
"Teichert integrated women into her art whenever she could," said Dawn Pheysey, curator of the exhibit, in a recent interview. "She always painted them with a great deal of courage and dignity."
Born in North Ogden on Aug. 28, 1888, to Ella Hickman and Fredrick John Kohlhepp, Teichert was the second of 10 children. She grew up in Idaho, where she received little formal schooling; however, her parents heavily stressed music, art and literature.
As a child, Teichert could always be found with a sketchbook and charcoal in hand. At 14, she traveled to San Francisco with a wealthy cattleman and his family to work as a nursemaid. During her stay, she visited the Mark Hopkins Art School, where she was exposed to great works of art for the first time.
Back in Idaho, Teichert graduated from high school and began teaching school and working in the fields to earn enough money to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. Upon the completion of her studies, she received a scholarship to study in New York under Robert Henri, the great American Realist.
Henri was a harsh critic, and Teichert later wrote in her autobiography that she disliked his methods. She wanted Henri to simply look at her work and tell her what she needed to do. While there was some initial animosity between student and teacher, the two eventually became good friends.
With the friendship came Henri's introduction to Mormonism and the Book of Mormon. He asked Teichert if anyone had ever told the Mormon story. When she said, "Not to suit me," he said that it was up to her to do it. Teichert spent the next 50 years doing it.
She knew the story of the book intimately - reading it was a regular part of daily life in her parents' household. But it wasn't until the mid-1940s that Teichert, as a well-established artist, began what would eventually become a series of Book of Mormon illustrations.
In the series, she employed her vivid imagination along with her studies of Mexican design and color. "Teichert went to Mexico City and visited ruins," Pheysey said. "She did a lot of sketches. Some of the architecture in her paintings are actually taken from some of the ruins she saw or read about."
Teichert also had a number of publications that she'd refer to, like National Geographic and a series called "The Story of the Bible," that had images of Hebrew architecture and costuming. She incorporated these into such works as "Lehi's Dream," "Nephi the Builder, Forging Swords," "Mosiah Discovers Zarahemla," "Lamanite Maidens" and "Christ in the Red Robe."
Not only were her paintings masterfully conceived - the balance, focus, use of color and line are excellent - but the stories were correctly related. On occasion she took artistic license, but it was rare, leaving us with a wonderful collection of murals.
"For Teichert, the Book of Mormon is a story of determination, obedience, worry, regret, division, loyalty, fear, concern, happiness, peace and many other human emotions," write John W. Welch and Doris R. Dant in their book "The Book of Mormon Paintings of Minerva Teichert" (BYU Studies and Bookcraft). This wide array of emotional feelings is organized in and around several main themes, principally the divinity of Christ. "Jesus Christ himself, and holy angels, or people depicted in Christ-like postures, appear as a leitmotif of divine presence in many of the murals," write Welch and Dant.
In Teichert's paintings, divine guidance is openly displayed, and her villains are just as real and viable as are her heroes. These are real people with all their faults, relating with the Lord and his prophets.
"Teichert preferred soft, welcoming tones, using creams, browns, yellows and greens to create a warm and inviting relationship with the viewer," write Welch and Dant. "Her colors tend to reflect the real colors of the world, rather than the garish brashness of many modern illustrators. The one exception that she always indulged herself in, however, involved the color red. Her trademark was the red accent, and she liked to say that her heaven would always contain a little bit of red."
In conjunction with the exhibit is a one-woman theatrical performance, "Minerva Teichert: An Artist's Story," based on Teichert's life that runs every Monday at 7 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. There are also performances on Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 and 11:30 a.m., for school groups, and Tuesday and Wednesday at 5 p.m. for groups of 20 or more. Performances are free to the public, but reservations must be made by the Friday before the performance. Seating is limited to 50. For tickets call 1-801-378-4322.