A significant Mormon artist hides in plain sight

The larger-than-life sculpted George Washington head toppled on GW's campus is by Avard Fairbanks.

Arnold Friberg (1913-2010), Minerva Teichert (1888-1976), and Avard Fairbanks (1897-1987) surface early and often in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square. Illustrations of religious scenes by the first two line official church building walls, while Fairbanks’ sculptures are installed indoors and en plein air upon the square.

The Salt Lake Temple in 2019. My photo.

Ailing parents mourn their lost child while pressing forward from Nauvoo, Ill., to Salt Lake in Fairbanks’ “Winter Quarters” (1935), and his “First Vision” (1982) shows Joseph Smith on his knees, hand to his heart, looking heavenward. “Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood” (1964) and “Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood” (1957) form a kind-of-diptych outdoors in the temple’s shadow. (The pairing also appears at the Susquehanna County, Pa., Priesthood Restoration Site.)

Though labels don’t name Fairbanks, the two sculptures in Salt Lake bear the artist’s handsome signature on the side or back of each one. “Melchizedek” depicts the May 1829 restoration of the priesthood, lost following Jesus’ death, “when the Apostles Peter, James, and John conferred it upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery,” per the label. The other work also shows an earlier figure, long-haired and bearded—this time John the Baptist laying hands on the clean-shaven Smith and Cowdery.

Fairbanks’ “Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood” with Salt Lake Temple in background. 2019. My photo.

In Washington, Fairbanks’ sculptures of John Burke, Abraham Lincoln, Esther Hobart Morris, and Marcus Whitman are part of the U.S. Capitol collection, and four of his much-larger-than-life, bronze busts of George Washington mark some of the edges of the George Washington University campus.

The prospective and current students, alumni, and their families who pose for “selfies” in front of the latter likely have no idea that a famous Mormon artist sculpted them, or that Fairbanks created the angel Moroni on one of the six spires of the Washington D.C. Temple in South Kensington, Md. How, why, and when Fairbanks’ busts of the first U.S. president arrived on campus is a fascinating story, which I may tackle in an essay for the premium version of this newsletter one day.

For now, I share a different story, which began with a tweet from Kara Zupkus:

My first instinct was to check all four of the George Washington heads on campus, which is practically my backyard. First I confirmed the tweet was accurate (see below).

My photo. 2020.

Next I headed to the Foggy Bottom Metro station, where I found the two heads on either side of the entrance intact. The same proved true of the fourth, on the corner of 21 and Eye streets.

My photos. 2020.

My next inclination was to assume that with just one of four missing that perhaps it was being cleaned for some reason, but I then saw the crime log write-up in the student paper, the Hatchet:

Destruction of Property/Vandalism
Public Property On Campus (2300 Block of F Street NW)
6/1/2020 – Unknown
Closed Case
A GWPD officer found the head of a George Washington statue removed from a stand near the Greek Townhouses at the corner of 23rd and F streets. The head was found laying at the base of the stand. GWPD called Facilities Services following the discovery.
– No suspects or witnesses.

GW law professor Jonathan Turley noted on his blog that he is highly critical of “the defacing of our monuments and destruction of public art,” including the “destruction [that] has reached my own campus.” He added that GW hasn’t publicly addressed the matter, and the Hatchet log “sounds like the head was somehow temporarily misplaced or lost rather than being ripped from its foundation and tossed to the ground.”

Rather than being conspicuously quiet or passive about destruction—“There seems a fear that any criticism of such attacks will cause a backlash and additional protests”—university officials ought to maintain control of campuses and preserve “the environment that fosters intellectual, not violent, speech,” to Turley.

Whoever toppled the sculpture evidently disagrees, and the artwork that the individual (or group) knocked flat on its face comes from an artist who saw his work as uplifting and bringing understanding to the downtrodden, per the LDS church site. “It can recognize the finer qualities of men of all stations of life and cause people to believe their own kind of living is worthwhile,” as “Brother Fairbanks” put it.

Evidently, it’s also a law of aesthetics that what goes up can topple down; whether it will rise again and if it will be framed differently remains to be seen.