Because there's no such thing as time travel -- you know, except for in the movies and on TV -- Casey Childs can't be quite as true to historical fact as he'd like to be in depicting the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, founder and first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I want to portray it as accurately as I possibly can," Childs said. "I feel like in a lot of my work I'm trying to show beauty, and I think there's a certain beauty in showing the truth."
Childs, a professional artist who lives in Pleasant Grove, has already gone as far as regular travel can take him. He visited Carthage Jail in Illinois to get a firsthand sense -- as well as firsthand photos -- of the site where Smith was killed by a mob of his detractors numbering about 150 men on June 27, 1844.
Using those photos and loads of historical research, Childs recently supervised construction of a set in Provo replicating the interior of Carthage Jail. On Dec. 1, men in mid-19th-century dress with painted faces and period weapons stormed the set so that Childs could collect photos in preparation for the second panel of a diptych (or set of two paintings that are thematically or conceptually linked) depicting the last moments before the mob forced its way into the room where Smith was being held with brother Hyrum Smith and friends Willard Richards and John Taylor.
(Childs said that local contractor Jared Bringhurst followed exacting standards in building the set: "Jared worked tirelessly with me poring through photos and measurements taken from the jail, to make sure that every detail of the set was exactly accurate to those in Carthage.")
The first panel, "Greater Love Hath No Man," was completed in 2011 and won the Charles & Ruth A. Whiting Award (the grand prize) at the Springville Museum of Art's 26th Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah Exhibition. The painting shows Smith, Hyrum Smith and Richards attempting to brace the door of the room where they'd been incarcerated, while Taylor, shown in the foreground of the painting, looks toward the window.
When completed, the second panel will depict the scene on the other side of the room's door, as the attackers, their faces painted black, attempt to force their way into the room. The two panels will hang facing each other at the LDS Church's Church History Museum adjacent to Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
From camera to canvas
The museum took an interest in the project after "Greater Love Hath No Man" was featured in the church's ninth International Art Competition earlier this year and received one of five Visitor's Choice Awards given by patrons.
The diptych, which began as a personal project for Childs, 38, was fueled by his memories of attending LDS Church primary meetings (the portion of LDS Sunday worship devoted to children) as a boy in Wyoming and seeing pictures of the door to Smith's room at Carthage Jail (now a historic site owned by the LDS Church), with the wood marred by a large bullet hole.
"That made it real for me," Childs said. "That was when I thought, 'This really happened.' " Years later, he said, he was struck by the idea of the frenzied final moments immediately before a bullet actually went through the door, sensing that it would be a powerful subject for a painting.
Using photos to model what he paints is a key part of Childs's method, but for more than just the obvious reasons. Michael VaughAn, a digital artist for Orem-based firm Xactware, has been taking photos for Childs for many years and flew out to Illinois to visit Carthage Jail with him. "We were able to have the room to ourselves," VaughAn said, which allowed him to photograph it from every angle, including rolling under the bed to get ground-level photos.
More than just capturing the layout and furnishings of the room, however, the photos also captured its lighting. VaughAn said that he and Childs even took their trip at the end of June, so that the natural light they saw would replicate the conditions of June 27, 1844, as closely as possible.
On Dec. 1, VaughAn took hundreds of photos that Childs will sort through as he prepares to paint. "I might take a hand gesture that I like from one photo," Childs said. "Or there might be a good facial expression, or maybe one of the bodies will be turned a certain way."
The final painting will ultimately be a composite that blends Childs's artistic interpretation with images from the many different photos.
One thing the Church History Museum did to help Childs was connect him with the library of period costumes at LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo. Shari Ohman, a freelance costume designer who has worked extensively with LDS Motion Picture Studio, said that the studio has created its own large collection of costumes from the years 1820 to 1850 because there are very few of them available from the national film industry.
"We have built up a very large number of garments from that period," Ohman said.
There are some books than can be consulted when making those costumes, she said, but information about what people wore in mid-19th-century America largely comes from other sources. Paintings and early photographs from the era provide a lot of visual data, she said, and you can glean some information from journals and personal histories. Court documents, in particular wills, she said, also provide some details.
"If a man in a family had a particular coat or, more especially, a felt hat," Ohman said, "frequently that's described when it's bequeathed to a family member."
Childs recruited 11 local men, including a few of his relatives, to dress up and portray the mob members, whose number included an Illinois state senator, a newspaper editor, lawyers, a tavern keeper and even a shoemaker. "You wouldn't think of a shoemaker as being an evil guy who wanted to kill someone," Childs said.
Details like that are important to Childs. As a lifelong Latter-day Saint, he doesn't sympathize with the men or their motives, but he does feel that there's value in humanizing them. Childs's older brother, Barry Childs, who participated in the mob photo shoot along with his 15-year-old son, Alex, said that he'd never known any details at all about the lives and identities of mob members before joining the project.
"It's a little weird to put yourself in that role," Barry Childs said, but added that it's interesting "to be able to contemplate who these people were and where they were coming from."
Childs said it will probably take him about three months to complete the new painting after he sifts through his new cache of photos. "I will sit with a piece for as long as I can," he said. "If there isn't anything else more that I can say or tell, that's when I know it's done."