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Sculpture bound for Norway

Famous Knaphus 'Handcart Pioneers' piece will grace emigrant museum in Norway
Published: Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009

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For generations, it has been an LDS icon, one of the most famous artworks in Mormonism. Now, a copy of Torleif S. Knaphus' "Handcart Pioneers" sculpture, viewed by millions of Temple Square visitors over the years, will grace the Norwegian Emigrant Museum in Ottestad, Norway, about a two-hour drive north of Oslo.

Mike Terry, Deseret News
Torleif Knaphus' Handcart Pioneers sculpture is prepared for its transoceanic voyage to Norway by some of his descendants. A casting from the original work, it will be placed in a prominent location at Norwegian Emigrant Museum north of Oslo.

Brother Knaphus (1881-1965) was a Norwegian convert to the Church who emigrated to Salt Lake City in 1905, where he created many sculptures and paintings, some with LDS themes. The Church commissioned many of the sculptures. Besides the handcart statue, perhaps his most famous work is the Hill Cumorah Monument in Palmyra, N.Y., depicting the angel Moroni.

Mike Terry, Deseret News
Maria Knaphus James, now 85, was the model for the little girl riding on the handcart in the famous sculpture by her father, Torleif Knaphus. Casting from original 3-foot sculpture is being donated to Norwegian Emigrant Museum.

"It is a natural fit to have a statue about emigrants by a Norwegian emigrant be placed at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum," said Allen P. Gerritsen, a Knaphus grandson and representative of the Knaphus (pronounced kuh-NOP-hoos) Family Organization.

The sculpture being sent to Norway is a casting from the 3-feet-high original commissioned in 1924 by the Daughters of Utah Handcart Pioneers. That work was displayed for decades in the old Bureau of Information Building on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where the South Visitors Center now stands.

Courtesy Knaphus family organization
First Vision sculpture and bas relief are two of Brother Knaphus' Church-commissioned works.

For the 1947 centennial of the coming of the Mormon pioneers to Utah, the Church commissioned a heroic-size copy of the sculpture for placement on Temple Square, where it has stood for years just east of the Assembly Hall.

Brother Gerritsen said the sculpture going to Norway will be placed June 7 in a prominent location outside the museum along a pathway between the museum's research center and religious building. A celebration and formal unveiling, with Norwegian dignitaries to be invited, will mark the event.

Courtesy Knaphus family organization
Bust of President George Albert Smith is one of nine sculptures of Church presidents created by Norwegian convert Torleif Knaphus.

Scores of Knaphus descendants gathered Saturday, Jan. 31, in Salt Lake City for a "send-off" of the sculpture.

Among those on hand was Brother Knaphus' own daughter, Marie Knaphus James, who was the model for the little girl riding in the handcart.

Courtesy Knaphus family organization
An accomplished artist even before his emigration, Torleif Knaphus studied in Paris, New York and Chicago after coming to Utah. His work was eventuallly displayed in seven states and in Canada.

Now 85, she shared memories of her father. Though she does not remember him sculpting the original in 1924, the creation of the large one in 1947 "was a big thing in my life," she said.

She remembered going to the studio to see him work. She was there on one occasion as a young mother, when she expressed admiration for his work and the wish that she had such talent.

Torleif Knaphus is shown with "Handcart Pioneers" sculpture he designed, which eventually became a famous Temple Square statue. A casting from original work is being sent to Norway, his homeland.

"He stopped his work, got down and looked me in the eye, and said, 'Why Marie, you're sculpting right now.' " He told her she was sculpting the lives of her children.

Torleif Knaphus was an accomplished art student in Norway where he joined the Church, then emigrated to Utah in 1905, spending much of the rest of his life creating Church art works.

"He was quick to make you feel like his work was no more important that anyone else's," she remarked.

She recalled the occasion when, in her father's later years, a reporter from Life magazine interviewed him in his Salt Lake studio, surrounded by statues, oil paintings and clay models. Asked what his greatest work was, he pointed out pictures of his family and a large genealogical pedigree chart hanging on the wall. He replied, "My family and this genealogical research have been my greatest work in life."

It was not the answer the Life reporter was looking for, his daughter recalled, but it reflected his values.

She remarked that her father, after he joined the Church, was full of zeal and eagerly distributed pamphlets and books about the Church to family and friends in Norway. "Now his handiwork will continue that missionary contact in his native land," she said.

Brother Gerritsen's brother John, the family organization chairman, said his grandfather used a number of models for his work, but for the father in the handcart sculpture, he used, among others, the likeness of John Rowe Moyle, a handcart pioneer and a stonecutter who worked on the Salt Lake Temple.

In his October general conference address last year, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, told the inspiring account of Brother Moyle, who lost his leg after it was broken in a farm accident and, after his recovery, crafted a wooden leg he used to walk the 22-mile distance each week from his home in Utah Valley to continue his work on the temple. At April 2000 general conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve also related the story of Brother Moyle.

Allen Gerritsen said the family organization found five years ago that Norway does not have any art pieces from their famous progenitor. They launched a fund-raising effort to cast the copy and donate it to the museum in Norway. He said it will sit on a massive base of Iddelfjord granite, found only in Norway. A bench made of the same material will face the statue.

At the send-off, Knaphus descendants and invited guests viewed many of the artist's sculptures and oil paintings. Many of them were from private collections of family members, so it was the first time for them to view one another's holdings in one place. Among the works were a bust of President David O. McKay; a bust of Emmeline Wells, a pioneer-era Church member and women's suffrage advocate; and a sculpture of Evan Stephens, an early Tabernacle Choir director and composer of LDS hymns.

One of the paintings depicted the family farm in Norway that Brother Knaphus painted before his emigration, from which the family name is derived; Knaphus, a unique surname in Norway, means "house on a hill."

Placement of the sculpture at the museum in Norway continues an association fostered by both the Knaphus family and BYU, said Erlend D. Peterson, associate international vice president at the university and a former Church mission president in Norway.

"The handcart is a significant contribution to the museum," Brother Peterson said. "The director, Knut Djupedal, is a personal friend. He has come to Salt Lake City three times to work out the arrangements, and he is very pleased to receive the statue."

Brother Peterson said the donation of the statue makes an important statement about the 19th- century immigration of Norwegian Latter-day Saints to Utah.

"Until recently, Norwegian Mormon convert immigration was ignored by most non-LDS Norwegian academics," he said. "A few years ago, I persuaded a leading Norwegian immigration scholar at St. Olaf College, Professor Odd S. Lovoll, to visit Utah and learn about Mormon convert immigration from Norway to Utah."

The professor spent three days interviewing Norwegian immigrants and descendants of immigrants. He then published a book about Norwegian Americans and included sections about LDS immigration, illustrated by a picture of Brother Knaphus standing by his Pioneer Handcart statue.

BYU has a connection to Norway through scholarship programs and a visiting lecture series. The university has hosted a number of guests in Utah, including the current prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg; Norwegian Princess M?tha Louise; and soprano Sissel Kyrkjebo, a guest soloist with the Tabernacle Choir. The three each received a small copy of the handcart statue from the Knaphus Family Organization.

Richard G. Oman, a longtime curator at the Church History Museum, where the original 1924 sculpture is now displayed, attended the statue send-off. He said heritage is reflected both in Knaphus' sculpture and his life, a heritage of overcoming hardship to achieve great things. The work of the family in providing the sculpture for the museum in Norway is an application of two precepts taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith: governing themselves according to correct principles and doing good of their own free will, Brother Oman said.

rscott@desnews.com