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Charlton Heston as Nephi? Arnold Friberg’s ‘lost’ Book of Mormon sketches to go on display

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When artist Arnold Friberg passed away in 2010, his family began to clean out his studio in Salt Lake City. In a lifetime of painting, Friberg had painted “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” portraits for the Queen of England and a Book of Mormon series. Knowing how prolific of an artist Friberg had been, family expected to find some sketches.

“I think people knew that Arnold was very prolific when it came to sketching. Every painting he sketched out, did his studies — really tried to get it just right,” Steevun Lemon said. “But I don’t think (his family) or anyone else recognized just the sheer volume of sketches that Arnold had done in relation to the Book of Mormon paintings.”

Lemon, director of Foundation Arts, is the curator of the new "The Lost Book of Mormon Sketches" exhibit that will be on display at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building Oct. 2–6. during the building’s regular hours. The exhibit will close at 4:30 p.m. on the final day.

The exhibit will be done in conjunction with a larger show by Friberg Fine Art titled “A Life in Art: Arnold Friberg,” which opens at The Gateway Oct. 1 and runs through the end of the year.

“(The exhibits) really show two sides of his career,” Lemon said. “The exhibit at The Gateway focuses on everything from his patriotic, like his "Prayer at Valley Forge," to really his life’s work. This exhibit is more focused on those Book of Mormon sketches, those lost sketches that we found.”

Rian Nelson, who built the website for the “Lost Book of Mormon Sketches” exhibit, said that Friberg’s art has a special place in the heart of the LDS community because of his Book of Mormon series.

“Ninety percent of the world knows him for George Washington," Nelson said. "He painted Queen Elizabeth. He painted all this stuff. But to Latter-day Saints, he’s really just a Mormon artist, who just happened to paint George Washington. ... We’ve got this great little niche as Mormons.”

Sister Adele Cannon Howell, the LDS general Primary president at the time, commissioned Friberg to paint 12 Book of Mormon scenes in 1951. For seven years, Friberg produced hundreds of sketches for the project. He took a hiatus from the project to work on Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” film, but used both Charlton Heston and DeMille as models in some of his Book of Mormon sketches — Heston as Nephi and DeMille as King Mosiah. After returning to Utah, he finished the last painting in 1957.

For the years the paintings were printed in the Book of Mormon, they shaped how members interacted with the text, Lemon said.

Like many children in the LDS Church, Lemon enjoyed looking at Friberg’s illustrations in his blue Book of Mormon. In each print, Lemon said he could find the main players of the scripture’s tales: Nephi, Abinadi, Mormon and others. For Lemon, it was Samuel the Lamanite standing on the city wall that grabbed his attention.

“(Friberg has) clearly defined the Book of Mormon for us. He’s given us the eyes to the Book of Mormon,” Lemon said. “I don’t think we can overestimate or overstate the impact those 12 paintings have had on members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t think you can. It’s the Book of Mormon for most of us.”

Lemon said they included both studies for the final Book of Mormon paintings and sketches for paintings that never came to fruition in the exhibit. By including both, Lemon said, he hopes patrons will be able to discover a whole new side to the Book of Mormon series.

“There are some wonderful, fun pieces there and also some touching pieces,” Lemon said. “You not only see the thought process, the devotion and the testimony that went into creating those original 12 paintings that we love, but you also sort of catch this vision of so many others that you wish he ever would have had the chance to finish because they just capture your imagination.”

“The Lost Book of Mormon Sketches” exhibit is free and open to the public.

Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times. Email: kharmer@deseretnews.com Twitter: harmerk