Discover more from Wayfare
Gary Smith's "The Poisoned Tree"
In Pursuit of a True and Distinct Mormon Art
In 1967 Spencer W. Kimball, then an Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called on faithful and active artists within the Church to reveal their “inspired hearts and talented fingers” to “give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy.” That same year Gary Ernest Smith painted The Poison Tree. Smith was one of the key figures of the “Mormon Art & Belief Movement,” which sought to create art that could reach Elder Kimball’s high bar. Begun one year earlier, the movement wanted to make visual, in Smith’s words, “things” that were conceptual, doctrinal, and abstract. It would create work that balanced art and faith and would help Latter-day Saints embrace the beauty, complexity, and meaning of art in a way that extended beyond mere illustration. It would, in other words, make a true and distinct Mormon art.
In keeping with this lofty aim, The Poison Tree was created to be a work of art that was to edify, challenge, and uplift. Presented in vibrant, fauvist colors, this painting is about choices – both right and wrong. A similar didactic message has appeared in Christian Art for nearly two-thousand years, offering a choice between two paths heading in divergent directions. Think of Abel and Cain, Abraham and Lot, or the Tree of Life and a great and spacious building. In scripture, moreover, seeds are often associated with virtue. Faith, like divinity, begins as a seed. There are, however, other seeds that, like tares, distance one from God. Seeds of contention, discord, hate, and fear sprout into a poisoned tree, which, like a poisoned well, can only bring hardship and heartache. Art is typically about partaking, but here it is about abstaining. This drama plays out in Smith’s two figures. One seems to succumb to the tree’s thorny glow while the other, although tempted, seems to resist. One seems to fade into shadow while the other seems to remain in the light. This reading is strengthened by the evocatively painted sun on the horizon, which may be seen as a gloaming in which the brilliant hues of the day will eventually be overtaken by darkness, or a dawn that brings life and a boldness of color to a new day.
James Swensen is an Associate Professor of Art History and the History of Photography at Brigham Young University and the author of In a Rugged Land: Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and the Three Mormon Towns Collaboration, 1953-1954.