News Story

Willie and Martin Handcart Exhibit Opens at Museum of Church History and Art

Willie & Martin Remembered: A Tribute to the Mormon Handcart Pioneers, a new exhibition at the Museum of Church History and Art, will open to the public on Saturday, 30 September 2006, and run through Tuesday, 2 January 2007.

The exhibit features recently completed paintings and sculpture about the ill-fated Willie and Martin handcart companies that were caught in early snowstorms on the plains of Wyoming while traveling to Utah in 1856.

This display of new works commemorates the 19th-century handcart emigration period of the Mormon pioneers and the 150th anniversary of the Willie and Martin handcart companies.

The art is powerful and poignant in its depiction of the Latter-day Saints who traveled from Europe to Utah in the Willie and Martin companies. These pioneers left their homelands to gather in America with others who shared their newfound faith. In their faces as portrayed in the paintings and sculpture, one sees nearly every emotion imaginable as they experienced both great hope and devastating tragedy along the way.

Describing his approach to this new exhibit, curator Robert Davis said: “Nearly every label in the exhibit contains a quote from one of the pioneers or their rescuers. I could not think of a more powerful way to tell this story than through the words of those who experienced it. The quotes and the works of art create a sense of compassion and reverence for these faithful people who endured horrific tragedies and who mustered incredible faith in God.”

The art in the first part of the exhibit depicts expectation and hope as Latter-day Saint converts board a ship and leave England. Their early excitement is tempered after they arrive in America and experience the difficult outfitting process in Iowa City, Iowa. After they cross Iowa, concern mounts as they hear the counsel of Levi Savage, who encouraged them to wait a year to travel westward rather than start late in the season.

Paintings show the pioneers meeting the journey’s day-to-day experiences with enthusiasm as they push and pull their handcarts across the sun-filled plains of Nebraska. Then, the snow begins to fall. In one group of paintings, one can almost feel the biting wind blowing through tattered clothing and the sting of harshly driven snow. A feeling of pathos emerges in paintings where families huddle together for warmth, while others bury their dead in shallow graves.

Finally, toward the end of the exhibit, the art depicts a renewed sense of hope in several paintings featuring the arrival of valiant rescuers who hauled the beleaguered handcart pioneers to safety in Salt Lake City.

Several of the artists whose works appear in this exhibit are direct descendants of Willie and Martin pioneers and rescuers.

Stephen Mark Bartholomew’s painting shows his great-great-grandmother and her sister as teenagers gathering wood in the snow. Through his research, he learned that these girls pulled one of two family handcarts all the way across the plains until their rescue near Devil’s Gate.

Artist Glen Hawkins painted his ancestor Ann Jewell Rowley, a widow, pulling a handcart through the snow with the help of her seven children who traveled with her in the Willie Company.

Artists whose works are featured in this new exhibit all responded to the invitation of filmmaker Lee Groberg to create new works of art depicting the story of the Willie and Martin handcart companies for a book that he and Heidi Swinton wrote to commemorate the handcart sesquicentennial.

Groberg and Swinton also collaborated in the production of a TV documentary on the Willie and Martin companies that inspired the creation of the book and this exhibit. Both the documentary and the book are entitled Sweetwater Rescue: The Willie and Martin Handcart Story.

The book, recently published by Covenant Communications, includes 80 original works of art by 43 artists. Forty of these works are featured in the exhibit at the Museum of Church History and Art.

More of these original works can be seen in a companion exhibit at the Museum of Utah Art and History (MUAH) located at 125 South Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City. The MUAH companion exhibit will open on Saturday, 30 September 2006, and run through 31 October 2006. Gallery hours are 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, see .

Lee Groberg’s documentary is scheduled to make its television debut on KBYU, channel 11, on Sunday, 1 October 2006, at 7:00 p.m. National release on affiliates of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) will follow on 18 December 2006. The one-hour dramatized documentary will also be shown at the Museum of Church History and Art throughout the run of this exhibit.

Willie & Martin Remembered: A Tribute to the Mormon Handcart Pioneers can be seen at the Museum of Church History and Art weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Saturday, Sunday and most holidays from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The museum is located at 45 North West Temple Street in downtown Salt Lake City, just one-half block north of the Temple Square TRAX station. Admission is free.

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