The Brilliance of the Gilgal Garden

Entrance to the Gilgal Garden

Last week, I visited the Gilgal Garden (749 East 500 South, Salt Lake City) for the first time, and I came away impressed and surprised. I knew quite a bit about the garden before my visit, from articles online and the initial campaign to preserve the garden in 1997. Still, the garden far exceeded my expectations, leaving me awestruck by the audacity of Child’s attempt to literally imprint in stone a personal expression of faith and”¦

“create a sanctuary or atmosphere in my yard that will shut out fear and keep one’s mind young and alert to the last”¦”

Thomas Battersby Child, Jr. (1888-1963), the garden’s designer, was a masonry contractor and bishop of Salt Lake City’s Tenth Ward for 19 years (itself an impressive achievement–today bishops usually don’t serve longer than five years). In 1945 he began work on the garden in an attempt “to give physical form to his deep-felt beliefs.” Child put it this way:

If you want to be brought down to earth in your thinking and studying, try to make your thoughts express themselves with your hands.

Captain of the Lord's Host
Captain of the Lord's Host

In addition to working much of the stone himself, Child involved his son-in-law, Bryant Higgs, a skilled welder, and sculptor Maurice Brooks in the project; and along the way, he pioneered the use of the oxyacetylene torch for cutting stone. Child was proud of the fact that he had only brought raw materials to the garden. He scoured the state for stones weighing up to 62 tons, which were then brought to the garden and carved on site.

While this is quite impressive, none of this occurred to me when I walked into the garden — I didn’t read the brochure until after I had seen everything.

The Testimony of Job
The Testimony of Job

Instead, I was first struck by how much of the garden is about text. More than 70 stones in the garden have been engraved with texts: scriptures, poems and hymn texts and other philosophical statements that reflect what Child felt. It seemed to me like the cards, stickers and post-it notes we today put up in offices and on the sides of computer screens–except that in this case the sayings are literally carved in stone.

The Scriptures on the Rock

Later, I was overwhelmed by the scale of the garden and the amount of effort Child put into his project–some 18 years of his life. In addition to the texts carved in stone, Child produced 13 sculptures, the last of which was incomplete, and is, I think, one of the most intriguing in the garden. Called “the Monument to the Priesthood,” it is like much of the garden; at once obvious and obscure. Four books that rest on a rock represent the standard works on the rock of revelation. A carved globe, representing the world, was to rest on  the books, but Child couldn’t finish the globe before he died. Next to the books is an arch, and on the far side of the arch is a tall, two-part spire, representing the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, topped off by a wire sculpture of the Angel Moroni.

The Joseph Smith Sphynx
The Joseph Smith Sphynx

Gilgal is perhaps best known for the Joseph Smith Sphynx, which includes an illustration of a Temple carved into its front (between the paws and below the face). Child clarified the sculpture’s meaning with a fragment of a well-known poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which he carved in a text stone near the Sphynx:

The Sphynx is drowsy
Her wings are furled
Her ear is heavy
She broods on the world

Who’ll tell me her secret
The ages have kept?
I awaited the seer
While they slumbered and slept

To those who see Gilgal cold, without knowing anything about it, this all might come across as rather strange. Child recognized this possibility, writing:

You don’t have to agree with me. You may think I am a nut, but I hope I have aroused your thinking and curiosity.

What is important in all forms of art, I think, is the meaning that we, the consumers of art, can glean from it. It may be that, given how familiar many of the texts are and how obvious some of the sculpture is, that the meaning found at Gilgal is something we already have elsewhere. But looking beyond the obvious, I think there is more here. There are, for most of us, meanings that are not familiar or that come from repetition. And, most of all, I think there is much meaning in Child’s audacity and perseverance; in his insistence in literally carving in stone his vision of the gospel. May we all have something in our lives that means that much.


Quotations are from:

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