by Robert Leavitt
Like all unique places in our city, Gilgal Sculpture Garden is inconspicuous and mostly unknown to Salt Lake's residents. Although it is but a stone's throw away from an LDS ward house, a short jaunt from a shopping center and a hopped fence from Chuck-A-Rama, Gilgal remains the secret garden of the Utah art scene.
Photo by Ruby ClaireGilgal Sculpture Garden is the creation of masonry contractor and LDS bishop Thomas B. Child Jr. Much like my own uncle's short-lived and poorly conceived "Kentucky Bluegrass Casino," Child began the project in his own backyard in 1945. Child gathered large rocks and boulders throughout the state for his work, enlisting the help of local sculptors. Through his work, Child turned his backyard into a sanctuary and his own personal testament to both his trade and his faith. Before his death in 1963, Child completed 12 large stone sculptures and engraved over 70 rocks with passages from poems and scriptures.
Although Gilgal is an expression of Child's beliefs as a Latter-Day Saint, do not be afraid, timid apostate readership. There are no statues of church leaders pointing at you and making you feel bad for buying that Nine Inch Nails record. Thomas B. Child Jr. was much more of a visionary than Mohonri Young. For example, Gilgal's most well-known work is a sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith. While it does contain the visage of the LDS founder and prophet, the whimsical nature of the sphinx makes the piece open to interpretation. The ambiguity of Gilgal allows the gardens to fill a unique, artistic niche in the LDS art world. For most, LDS art is highly sentimentalized "inspirational" dreck. Gilgal, however, is never preachy. Instead, it is an example of what could be considered high art, for it is both a quest and an exploration. Thus, the subject matter and folk art craftsmanship give the garden a sense of serenity and meditation, making the garden a great place for quiet reflection or the ideal venue for a picnic of discounted Twinkies (which can be purchased next door).
In addition to the Joseph Smith sphinx, other notable sculptures include the scattered limbs of a dismembered giant, the Angel Moroni, a large stone arch and a monument to the trade of masonry that includes a Child's own self-portrait. In the corner of the gardens lies a large purple rock that was to be carved into a large globe. Child, however, died before this particular piece could be completed and the sculpture rests in its unfinished state.
After Child's death, the gardens almost disappeared. In the following years, Gilgal fell into neglect; the plant life became overgrown and many sculptures were damaged or stolen by vandals. When the property went up for sale during the 1980s, a group of Canadian real estate investors almost converted Gilgal into condominiums. However, concerned citizens with a desire to preserve the park (The Friends of Gilgal Garden) enlisted the help of investors to purchase the land. Gilgal Sculpture Garden is now a public park.
Since then, Gilgal Sculpture Garden has been a must-see destination for lovers of Utah Exotica. Given the somewhat hidden locale and the mysterious nature of the sculptures, it is hard not to feel a sense of discovery upon first walking into the garden. It is this quality that makes Gilgal deserving of being the only identified "visionary art environment" in Utah. Like other similar environments such as Watts Towers in Los Angeles or the Palais Ideal in Paris, Gilgal is an example of what happens when a man overcomes both his own lack of formal training and convention to express his own personal or spiritual conviction.
Gilgal, like many of these other visionary art environments, is not only a magnet for sightseers but also one that is in danger of being destroyed. As any Google image search reveals, the garden has become the place where out-of-towners take a snapshot of themselves sitting in the lap of the Joseph Smith sphinx. It is analogous to all of those photos people take in Pisa, where with some amateur trick photography, tourists can look like they are supporting the Leaning Tower. However, unlike the Leaning Tower, the sculptures at Gilgal are fragile. So, sorry to ruin your blog entry, hippie dude from Colorado, but climbing on the statues is not only in bad taste, it's also prohibited. Currently, The Friends of Gilgal Garden now act as curators of the park, and with the help of the Utah Master Gardeners, efforts are underway to restore Gilgal Sculpture Garden to the condition Child had when he was alive.
Gilgal Sculpture Garden is located at 749 East and 500 South, northeast of Trolley Square. Gilgal Sculpture Garden is open daily. Visit online at Gilgal Gardens online