What My Father Did

March 16, 2009 | 34 comments
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A few weeks ago my father retired after spending three decades working for the Church Historical Department.  I’m no doubt guilty of an excess of filial piety, but I think that the Church and Kingdom are better for the work that he did.  In the mid-1970s, Richard Oman was a graduate student in art history at the University of Washington, whose eclectic interests — mainly in non-Western, tribal art — were getting in the way of a smooth advancement toward academic degrees.  The Church had recently decided to revive the old Deseret Museum that once stood on Temple Square.  An offer came to Seattle to leave the Northwest for Utah, and Oman was hired as part of the team charged with creating the new museum, which opened in 1984.

Richard G. Oman as a young man.In addition to the documents collected in the archives, the Church also has a huge collection of art and artifacts.  Initially, Oman was involved in going through this collection and thinking about how a museum could be structured around it.  As a small boy, I have vivid memories of going to the basement of the Church Office Building, where the collection was then housed, and being allowed to handle such relics as the pepper-box pistol that the Prophet Joseph had at Carthage jail and touch things such as the printing press on which the Book of Mormon was printed.  (Not surprisingly, I was most interested in the guns.  Porter Rockwell’s revolver in particular was very cool.)

As the museum project progressed, Oman maneuvered himself into the position that he was most interested in: curator of acquisitions.  This meant that he was chiefly responsible for acquiring new objects for the museum’s collection.  As a kid, I told people that my dad’s job was to be “Indiana Jones for the Mormon Church.”  One of his central agendas during his years in this post was to expand the church’s collection of non-western Mormon art.  In the 1970s when he first came to work in Salt Lake, tribal art was still associated in the minds of many Mormons with the counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and he had to work hard to break down suspicions about “hippie drug art.”  He also faced deeper intellectual problems.

quiltThe first was the ambiguity of the very idea of Mormon art.  Was it simply art that was done by Mormons?  Was it defined by some particular style?  Was it confined to particular mediums?  Ultimately, my father and others working at the museum converged on consensus that stressed content:  Mormon art was art that had an identifiably Mormon content.  Armed with this definition, my father went in quest of such art.  At the heart of his searches was the belief that if the central Mormon narrative of the 19th century was the Restoration and Gathering to Zion, the central Mormon narrative of the 20th century was the expansion of Mormonism internationally.  Accordingly, the artistic expression of this 20th century story would require a new openness to non-Western genres of art.  “Art” could not be limited to oil paintings and bronze sculpture.  It had to include batiks, molas, Navajo rugs, Hopi pottery, African carving, and a host of forms that did not fit comfortably into the fine art canon.  Rather than artistically condescending to the tide of new converts in places like Latin America or the Philippines, he insisted that they should be artistically listened to and the contributions of their traditions to the Restoration should be treasured and appreciated.

This intellectual insight also leaves its foot prints on the memories of my childhood.  As part of his work, my father identified a host of Latter-day Saint artists who were Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Pubelo, etc. and who were already producing high-quality work that had attracted the notice of art galleries and museums, especially in Santa Fe.   Many of them lived in remote corners of the Indian reservations of the southwest.  Accordingly, my father loaded up a church-owned van and took me with him on sweeps through the vast spaces of the Four Corners region visiting Mormon artists and collecting their work.  I remember meeting LDS weavers and potters in hogans and trailers, and panicking when the van sunk to its axles in the sands of remote washes.

familyBecause my father was trained in art history rather than art, his view of how art has been produced has always been historical.  One of the results of this is that he has never been particularly impressed by the Romantic model of the artist as the lone genius responsive only to the urging of his inner muse.  Art, he realized, is often a communal creation, one embedded in social and family networks.  This means that folk art — much of it produced by women — such as quilts and needlework needed to be included in the canon.  Likewise, art has often been produced in response to patrons, frequently religious patrons.  Accordingly, he helped to push the idea that the museum should not only collect and display Mormon art, but that it should also actively sponsor its production.  Again, the emphasis needed to be international.

The result has been the series of International Art Competitions sponsored by the church museum, each of which presents a broadly Mormon theme, such as missionary work or the Book of Mormon, and then solicits visual artists to enter their work, regardless of its medium or genre.  The result has been an ever increasing — and increasingly diverse — body of art infused with Mormon ideas.  The best works from the competition would then be shown in a museum exhibit, and the best of the best pieces would be purchased for the Church’s collection.  Increasingly, the results of this competition have made it into the Ensign and other church publications.  The chances are that if you see an artistic image in a church magazine that is not a bit of contemporary illustration, the image was produced for one of the Church Museum’s International Art Competitions.

dadheadshotToward the end of his career, my father became increasingly interested in the temple and its artistic significance.  He noted, for example, that in nineteenth-century temple murals we have one of the few examples of landscapes being used as explicitly religious art.  He also produced a study of the exterior symbolism of the Salt Lake Temple, as well as studies of other early temples.  When President Hinckley announced the massive expansion in temple construction, my father was invited to sit on the Temple Art Committee, where he pushed for a variety of innovations: First, he urged the use of decorative elements to localize the necessarily mass-produced mini-temples.  Taking buildings such as the Liae Temple as a model, he argued that decorative friezes and moldings could be altered to reflect local decorative traditions.  Second, he pushed for the return of original art work to temples.  Rather than framing church distribution prints, he encouraged the temple department to commission original works of art and to take advantage of the LDS artists who were willing to consecrate their talents to the beautification of the temples.  We can see the results in the original works of art that hang in many temples now, as well as the return of temple murals.

For example, if you go to the Winter Quarters Temple you will see stained glass windows portraying the events of the Mormon exodus that occurred where the temple is located.  My father was instrumental in getting those windows commissioned.  At the time I was working in Washington, D.C. and at my father’s request one day on my lunch hour I travelled to the old Washington chapel (now owned by the Unification Church) and photographed the stain glass windows in that building depicting the story of the Restoration and the Mormon exodus to Utah.  These photographs were later used as models for the Winter Quarters’ windows.

Of course, my father wasn’t the only force behind any of these developments, but he was a force in all of them and others having to do with the preservation of the material Mormon past and its interpretation.  He spent a lifetime (my lifetime) in the service of Zion, doing his part to help her put on her “beautiful garments.”  I believe that we are richer as a people for his work, and I am very proud to be his son.

34 Responses to What My Father Did

  1. marta on March 16, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    A lovely tribute. Thank you.

  2. Hunter on March 16, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks for this interesting account of an interesting career. A sort of “Adventures of a Church Curator,” a la Arrington.

    Now that he’s retired, what next?

  3. J. Stapley on March 16, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Wonderful.

  4. Mike McBride on March 16, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Nice post, Nate. I found the part about temple art particulary interesting. Inside the Newport Beach Temples are a couple murals of local beaches. It seems like the ideas your father promoted may have had some impact down here.

  5. Ardis Parshall on March 16, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Your dad has initiated some fascinating conversations (or, perhaps more accurately, has given some wonderful monologues with me as fascinated listener), and I’m going to miss his coming into the library regularly. Without writings like this, I’d have no idea how much we owe to the vision of one man. Yeah, I appreciate that he had to have had support and agreement, but without him, or someone like him, our institutional ideal of art would start and stop with Victorian furniture. Here’s to a long retirement where he can work on the projects he hasn’t had time to get to before now!

  6. Ben Pratt on March 16, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Thank you for this post, Nate. You’ve convinced me of your father’s influence!

    “Indiana Jones for the Mormon Church.” That was awesome.

  7. Clean Cut on March 16, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Very nice post; personal and also informative. Congratulations to your dad.

  8. rick on March 16, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    At the risk of sounding sappy, I would like to tell your father that I’m grateful for people like him who unobtrusively lend their considerable talents to help the Church. We are blessed in many ways by such unheralded efforts.

  9. Wm Morris on March 16, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    The International Art Competition is awesome — and it’s definitely helped improve the art that appears in the Ensign.

  10. DavidH on March 16, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Nate,

    I met your dad last year at MSH and visited with him a while about art in the Church. He touched on a couple of things you mention in your post, and had a contagious enthusiasm about the art in the newer temples. I am familiar with the art in the Redlands temple and the Snowflake temple, and I think they greatly add to the temple going experience. His stories about the collecting and creation of Native American art with respect to the Snowflake temple was fascinating and I think inspiring.

  11. zionssuburb on March 16, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Nate,

    With Glen Leonard having retired a few years ago it seems this era has come to an end. I have enjoyed many of the sites and displays associated with your father over the years. Well Done.

  12. bfwebster on March 16, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    As with others above, please give your father my heart-felt thanks for outstanding work done in (relative) obscurity. His choices and efforts (particularly regarding art in temples) will have an influence that will ripple for decades, if not centuries, and that will influence the experience people have in the most sacred places on earth.

    Not a bad legacy, that. ..bruce..

  13. Ray on March 16, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Nate, this really resonates for me, since my own father-in-law retired a few years ago from decades of anonymity in the BYU Continuing Ed department. He ignored lots of opportunities over the years to make lots more money, because he loved what he did so much. He had a huge impact on many, but few understand it.

    There are so many members who have had a tremendous impact on many who will never be known by the general membership or population at large – but to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. It sounds like your father is one of those people.

  14. TT on March 16, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Nate,
    I have always loved this story, and loved your entire family because of it. Thank you, thank you all.

  15. Tracy M on March 16, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Nate, I am positively reeling with jealousy.

    Congratualtions to your father on carreer well-lived and service well rendered.

  16. Julie M. Smith on March 16, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    I love this post. Thank you.

  17. Jack Welch on March 16, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Thanks for an accurate, inspiring, and very worthy tribute. Having had the privilege of working with your father as a member of the BYU Studies editorial board, I can second all that you say here. In our board meetings, Richard’s comments on submissions, perspectives, and policies are always interesting, expansive, and helpful in every possible way. To give an idea of how much Richard has contributed, of the 64 issues of BYU Studies printed since 1991, 35 have featured works of art from the Church Museum of History and Art on their covers that Richard harvest from all over the world, and eleven have included further images inside with fascinating commentaries by him. People all over the world owe him a great debt of appreciation, and I am happy to join all who congratulate and salute him for all your father did. And as he continues to serve, all of us look forward to what he will yet still do!

  18. Linda Arbon Phillips on March 16, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Nate,

    This was wonderful to read and reflect on the work your dad has done. I remeber the many trips through hay fields looking at old barns, local artwork ,etc. long before you were old enough to walk. Your Dad has always been a wonderful teacher and he has done a wonderful job sharing his talents with all of us. This is a nice tribute.

  19. Kevin Barney on March 16, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    On numerous occasions during my annual treks to the Great Basin I have gone to the Church Art Museum and been deeply impressed in particular by the international pieces. Without your dad and others like him, we’d still be mired in the Soviet realism school of church art. I doff my chapeau to him on his well deserved retirement.

  20. Susan S on March 16, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Nice job, Nate.

  21. Randy B. on March 16, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Well done Omans.

  22. Blake on March 16, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks Nate: I love the Church History Museum and marvel at the professionalism and constant variety I find there. I go at least once a summer with my family.

  23. Paul Oman- Nate's Uncle on March 16, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    Nate,

    Nice tribute to your dad and my brother. I am proud of both your accomplishments.

    Paul Oman

  24. Richard O. on March 16, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Nate,
    Thanks for the kind words. I love you too. Hopefully now I can spend more time with our wonderful family!
    Dad

  25. Susan Jones on March 16, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    Your Dad was made for that job, and that job was made better by him. He gets to be a pioneer in a different way. We wish him all the best in retirement. Thanks for sharing.

  26. Will Findlay on March 16, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    Excellent tribute Nate. One of the greatest highlights of coming back to visit family in Utah is a visit to the museum. I’m glad to know more about how he has been a part of it.
    He is also a lot of fun to talk to, as well as listen in on when discussing things (which is what I remember most as a child).

  27. Kaimi on March 17, 2009 at 12:07 am

    Great description, Nate — thanks for this post.

    After doing a job like that, your dad ought to be allowed to go on a cruise someplace warm, with some grandkids. :)

  28. John Mansfield on March 17, 2009 at 7:33 am

    Thanks for this peek behind the scenes. Does it mean anything to your father or his work that the Museum of Church History and Art recently changed its name to Church History Museum?

  29. Adam Greenwood on March 17, 2009 at 9:16 am

    I love to see filial piety. May it always be this merited.

  30. Becca Findlay Lloyd on March 17, 2009 at 11:55 am

    As one trained in art history and also acquainted with your dad for as long as memory serves, I admire him and his work immensely! I’m only disappointed that I did not get the chance to work with him at the Museum. Great tribute!

  31. PV on March 17, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Thank you to your father for the many beautiful pieces collected. For a museum without the deep wealth of the big-city museums, the Church Museum has amazing historic and artistic collections. The emphasis on international art has produced beautiful and timeless pieces that will be treasures for many years to come.

    I also particularly appreciate the attention being paid to art in the new temples. I too was worried about the “mass production” aspect of the new temples (as I recall Nephi’s sorrow that they were not able to build their temple to the level of the temple of Solomon), so the emphasis on unique and original artwork for the new temples is very welcome. Our artists and craftsmen now will be able to contribute just as those in the time of the pioneers did.

  32. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 17, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    One of the visits I best recall to the church art museum was with one of my Japanese missionary companions, who was in Salt Lake to pick up his daughter, who had completed service as a missionary on Temple Square. For the international members of the Church, seeing the international character of the Church depicted in its art gives them (and us) a sense of the scope of the marvelous and wonderful work we are jointly engaged in.

  33. Rob on March 20, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing the joy.

  34. Joseph D. Walch on March 23, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Richard is certainly a tribute to the depth of passion and wonder that the gospel brings to our daily, ostensibly mundane, lives.

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