What’s that beehive for?” friends from out of town asked me as I ferried them from the airport. I tried to explain the symbolic reminder of the paramount nature of work to our local culture that’s even on our highway signs. We aren’t the Beehive State for nothing. Though our state’s politics tend to be conservative, labor has played an important part in our history. Artistic representations, even down to the state emblem, reflect that importance.
Union organization here paralleled the rest of the country, and the early Mormon economy was similar to socialism, but still the most well-known connection of Utah to the labor movement is the execution of labor organizer Joe Hill in 1915. And while there isn’t any memorial to Hill anywhere in the state, there are a few places where you can view art that celebrates the laborer’s spirit—the nobility, suffering and even joy of work as a universal human pursuit.
The protagonists of Mahonri Young’s paintings, drawings and sculptures seem to be intent on working their way right up to heaven. The late-19th/early-20th century artist—best known for Emigration Canyon’s “This Is the Place” monument—was a grandson of Brigham Young. The Salt Lake native studied and traveled extensively in New York and Paris, and his work exudes the influence of the gritty realist school of the period, as well as the doctrines of the church he ultimately didn’t adhere to.
The virtues of hard work have always been a staple of the LDS faith, and inasmuch as it took almost unimaginable labors to forge the region into someplace livable, that value transcended theology to touch all settlers. This can be seen in the earthy physicality of Young’s farmers, construction workers and cowboys, who may be meriting a spot in the next world but are firmly fixed on making a life in this one. The Brigham Young University Museum of Art is the place to view the largest collection of his work, with more than 130 pieces.
Peruko Ccopacatty’s simply-titled “Wall Mural” on Pierpont Avenue’s studio row is one of the best-loved works of public art in Salt Lake City, probably because it demonstrates a warmth and humanity that makes it instantly accessible. It is unique not only because it’s a local depiction of working people, but also because it takes as its subject the creation of art.
The Peruvian-born artist, who now lives and works in Rhode Island, says he used colors that symbolize the native rock forms of our region. “I wanted to depict artists working because I’m am artist, someone working with materials, just like any other worker. I hoped the mural would be important to the community as a symbol,” he said. Some of his other subjects, like the Chernobyl disaster and the Valdez oil spill, have a darker, more violent tone than this depiction of “art workers” serenely busy at the construction of beauty.
He got the call to produce the mural in 1986 in a competition for the design. The piece was almost removed nearly a decade later, until local residents’ protests halted the effort. By now it seems like an indelible mark on the city, as if to say, “Yes, we do too make art here,” burned into the building as an architectural tattoo.
South of Provo, the Springville Museum of Art houses an extensive collection of Soviet Russian art, as well as some pieces by notable Utah artists like Young and LeConte Stewart. Works like Mikhail Kostin’s “In the Stalin Factory,” much like Young’s work, conceal in their realist style an ideological undercurrent. These are muscular, some almost monumental figures, to be sure, well worthy of expressions of awe. But they should also serve as reminders of the uses and abuses under which laborers have done more than their share—a fitting reminder for this weekend that initially meant more than a chance to barbecue.