“Torleif Knaphus, Sculptor Saint,” Ensign, July 1980, 11
Banquet guests applauded. The tail, strong Norwegian with jet black, wavy hair walked proudly back to his table. He had just won the second-place javelin-throwing award for all of Western Norway. Yet that night the athlete, Torleif Knaphus, would announce to friends that he was abruptly quitting sports to “spend all my strength and physical courage for art.” He was nineteen years old.
Torleif was born 14 December 1881 in Vats, Stavanger, Norway, and grew up amid “beautiful mountains and many lakes.” Like his Viking ancestors, he loved physical activity. Farm work made him muscular, and as a schoolboy he “fought every boy in school which did not run—and every gate on the roadway I jumped over, instead of walking through.” As a teenager he loved long-distance swims in the cold blue lakes nearby. He joined the local track club, regularly taking honors in swimming and high jumping, and in throwing the discus, hammer, and shot.
But art skills came to him early in life, too. At age five, while caring for sheep high in the hills, he passed the time by carving birds and human heads out of wood. Later his mother gave him a bound book with blank pages so he could sketch Norway’s nature. He later recalled that he found “great joy in expressing myself even then in those elementary drawings.”1
At age fourteen Torleif took out an apprenticeship in a paint and decorating shop in Haugesund, a job his father helped him find. But the urge to go to sea overcame him. So, like his Viking forbears, he sailed the northern seas between Norway and Iceland on Norwegian fishing boats. Seafaring, strangely enough, convinced him to become an artist. The reds and golds of ocean sunrises and sunsets, the magnificent midnight sun, the shimmering pastels of the northern lights, the stark white arctic ice, and other beauties awed him:
“Art was driven into my soul by the beautiful summer nights I spent as a sailor on the Arctic Ocean. When our little vessel was tossed around by giant blue-green waves under the most dramatic sky in the great Atlantic zone, I decided firmly to be an artist.”2
He gave up the hazards of sea life, partly because of his mother’s pleadings. Back home he completed his apprenticeship in “decoration painting,” earning his master’s slip which entitled him to be bonded and open his own shop. But Torleif the artist, like Torleif the athlete, sought to excel. Finding he needed advanced training, the day after the sports awards banquet he boarded a ship for Oslo (then called Christiana), Norway’s capital.
At Oslo his young life took two crucial turns. Although he was accepted for study under Harriet Backer at her famous art school, he also attended the Royal Art School where he learned sculpturing from Lars Utne and decided to make it his life’s work.
The second and more important turning point came one night when a roommate pinned him and his other roomie to the floor, “demanding us to buy tickets to a concert.” All three enjoyed a Latter-day Saint production, which introduced Torleif to Mormonism. The trio went to other LDS meetings, and Torleif recalled, “It was easy for me to see and understand that this was the only true Church of God.” Within three months he requested baptism. One cold February day in 1902, he said, “We walked on the 2-inch ice, crossed the terrain covered with snow, slid down over the snow and ice to the three feet thick broken up ice and then on the broken up ice I undressed and was baptized.”3 From that chilly moment his commitment to the restored gospel never wavered.
For three years the sculptor-to-be studied at Oslo. His talent earned him a prestigious scholarship to study in Rome, but love for the gospel forced him to forsake it, and instead he emigrated to Utah to be among the Saints, despite protests from his Protestant family.
Settling in Salt Lake City in 1906, the Norwegian newcomer became an eager member of the Church Scandinavian group. Despite poor English he picked up small art jobs. He did some painting in the Tabernacle and Salt Lake Temple, and he published an illustration in the Juvenile Instructor. The city’s Scandinavian weekly, the Bibuken, noted in 1909 that Torleif was sculpturing busts of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. That year he met and courted Emilia Helena Christensen—“Millie”—and they were married in the Salt Lake Temple.
Soon they moved to Utah’s Scandinavian center, Sanpete County, where, at the town of Central, Torleif and his brother Andrew set up a house painting company. (Andrew was the only other member of the Knaphus family to join the Church.) But in 1912 Andrew’s mission call broke up the company, and Torleif, realizing he needed more training to succeed as a sculptor, decided to accompany Andrew to Europe.
For a full year he studied in Paris at the Julian Academy, working under some of the world’s greatest sculptors. There he decided to specialize in sculpturing monuments. Then, before going home, he spent six months in New York studying at the Art Students’ League. When he returned to Utah he planned to devote his painting and sculpturing talents to the Church.
During his first year back he was hired by the Church to work on the Hawaiian Temple (constructed 1915–19). For half a year he did interior work and helped Avard Fairbanks sculpture the twelve oxen supporting the basement baptismal font. His children vividly remember him bringing home his pay: a sack of twenty-dollar gold pieces. These earnings enabled the growing Knaphus family to buy a modest Salt Lake City home.4
Soon another new temple, this one at Cardston, Alberta (constructed 1913–23), required his skills. There he carefully crafted the model for the baptismal oxen. In later years he judged this to be his all-time favorite font creation. Then, when temple exterior work began, he returned to Cardston and sculptured a large bas relief (sculptured scene slightly raised from background), “Christ the Fountainhead.” It depicts the Savior and the Samaritan woman at the well, a scene mirrored in a reflecting pool at its base.5 (The pool was later removed.)
For the Arizona Temple, dedicated in 1927, Torleif produced two impressive sculptures. The twelve terra cotta (baked clay) oxen beneath the baptismal font are his creation. So too are the eight detailed friezes (long, narrow, horizontal panels) forming an ornamental band around the tops of the north and south outside walls.
To make the friezes, Torleif formed plaster-of-paris models from sketches drawn by artist A. B. Wright. A California firm, using the models, cast the friezes in terra cotta. The figures, detailed and remarkably true to life, depict the gathering of Israel to the Rocky Mountains. Portrayed are French and Italian peasants, some in climbing togs after descending the Alps; a wife pleading with her husband to join her; people in Holland preparing to board ship; an Englishman, some Welsh and Irish, and a Scotsman arriving in America; various people in their national dress crossing the plains; and Mexicans, Spanish-Americans, Indians, and Polynesians traveling to Zion. Means of transport depicted include a handcart, canoe, ship, donkey, and horse.6
During his lifetime Torleif’s skilled hands touched and beautified many temples. He fashioned the oxen and font for the Idaho Falls Temple (dedicated 1945), crafted busts of Church presidents and other interior decorations for the Salt Lake Temple, did touch-up painting inside the Hawaii Temple, helped M. F. Malin do sculpture work for the Los Angeles Temple and grounds, and helped with the Oakland Temple baptismal font.
Torleif’s best known statue is the Handcart Monument, now one of Mormonism’s most recognized symbols. When the Daughters of the Handcart Pioneers commissioned him to memorialize the heroic handcart trek, Torleif intricately detailed a five-inch-high scale model out of clay, from which he copied the three-foot-high bronze monument. It features a rickety cart with much worn wheels. From one side sags a ragged quilt, and underneath hangs a kettle. On a seat sits a small girl. Pulling the cart is a man, bearded and inured to hardship. Beside him, helping with the cart and concerned about her small daughter, walks a pioneer mother. Behind is a boy. For some unknown reason Torleif did not include the little dog he once planned to place beside the boy.
This small Handcart Monument was unveiled 25 September 1926 by President Heber J. Grant. Guests of honor included two “white haired and bowed” handcart veterans, Alfred Burningham and Michael Jensen. For years the statue was displayed on a table in the Temple Square Bureau of Information.7
Then in 1938 Church leaders commissioned Torleif to make a heroic size copy for the pioneer centennial. By 1942 he finished the huge clay model and had the monument cast in bronze in New York. In 1947 the larger-than-life statue was unveiled on Temple Square, where it still impresses thousands of visitors each year.8
Summer 1935 found Torleif on the Hill Cumorah supervising the erection of another of his now famous creations. First, a thirty-foot-high, sixty-five-ton granite shaft was put into place on the north crest of the hill, the granite quarried from the vicinity of Joseph Smith’s Vermont birthplace. Then, each side of the base received a bronze plaque depicting an aspect of the coming forth of Cumorah’s sacred record: Moroni delivering the plates to Joseph Smith (west); the three witnesses being shown the plates by an angel (south); the Prophet showing eight witnesses the plates (east); and a scripture from the Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4–5 (north). [Moro. 10:4–5] Finally, a giant crane gently placed a nine-foot bronze statue of Moroni on top of the granite shaft. In his left arm the angel holds ancient records. His right arm is raised to call attention to the gospel message.
Torleif said the monument, a three-year project on his part, was designed to appear like a symbolic pillar of light, the granite shaft’s upward leading lines so placed as to draw the thoughts of man toward heaven and God. His desire was that “whoever sees this monument will investigate and accept the Gospel message as I have done.” As part of a well-publicized July 24th celebration at the hill, aimed at nonmembers, the monument was unveiled. Lighted at night, it can be seen from miles around.9 In 1976 Moroni was turned to look west instead of north, to face the nearby highway and visitors coming to the sacred hill (see Church News, 17 Apr. 1976, p. 3).
He did other Moronis. His eleven-and-a-half-foot gilded aluminum Moroni graced the top of the old Washington, D. C., chapel, perhaps the only LDS chapel to ever have a statue on its top, until that chapel was recently sold. The statue awaits reassignment. Torleif assisted M. F. Malin with the angel atop the Los Angeles Temple.10 His most frustrating Moroni was a heroic size statue showing the angel delivering the plates to the Prophet Joseph. For some reason the statue never was erected on Temple Square as planned, but it is displayed in the Wilford C. Wood museum in Bountiful, Utah.
Torleif did his skillful work in a number of studios during his long career. Visitors noted that these were usually cluttered with paintings, busts, plaster casts, and modeling clay. Daughter Olive recalled that in summers he took a cab to his studio in the early morning hours, worked until it became too hot, came home and rested in a cool basement bedroom, then returned to work in the evening.11 He loved his work. When he entered his studio “he usually shut the rest of the world out of his life and was a master of what he was doing.”12 General Authorities with whom he was particularly close and who visited his studios included Presidents George Albert Smith, Heber J. Grant, David O. McKay, and the Norwegian-born Apostle, John A. Widtsoe. Although most of Torleif’s time was spent on Church-related projects, he did occasionally teach special classes in sculpturing and art for local universities.
Torleif often worked harder than his pay merited. He believed in the law of consecration and willingly gave of his talents to the Church. If his work did not satisfy him he would say, “I won’t do this work for the Lord if it is not the best I can do.” During the Depression he sometimes was out of work. One time he wanted to donate money for a new chapel but could not. So, as his family’s contribution, he donated his talent, spending months sculpturing a large frieze for the front of the chapel.13
Throughout Salt Lake valley his works brought beauty to the community: busts of famous Utahns, decorations for office buildings, mortuary and chapel friezes. By far his best-loved secular monument is the 1937 “School Children’s Monument,” near the west entrance to the Salt Lake City and County Building. It features a granite base holding a scroll depicting the United States constitution. On either side of the base, facing each other, are life-size statues of a boy and girl looking up at the United States flag atop the seventy-foot flag pole set in the base. The statue honors school children, whose nickels and dimes paid for it.14
An artist’s career can be hard on his family life. But despite long absences and sometimes only subsistence income, Torleif was a successful and loved husband and father. His children called out the athlete in him. With them he took long hikes in nearby mountains, floated in the Great Salt Lake, paddled in a human chain around the Wasatch Springs swimming pool, attended wrestling and ski matches, rough-housed at home, did “hard and fast” push-ups with a child on his back, and provided entertainment by walking down a flight of stairs on his hands.
A deeply religious man, he often fasted and prayed about family problems. Frequently he bore strong testimony to his family. In the Sugarhouse Ward, Salt Lake City, with Elder LeGrand Richards as bishop, he served faithfully as a home missionary. People liked him for his constant optimism, his friendliness and generosity.
Tragedy struck in 1931 when his wife Millie died. Torleif was left with six children at home, the youngest just fifteen months old. Although several people offered to adopt the youngest three, he refused to allow his family to be divided.
He remained single for eight years, taking the youngest child to work with him and trying his best to be both father and mother to children.
Then in 1940, when he was fifty-eight, he married twenty-three-year-old Rebecca Marie Jacobson. She courageously helped raise his children and in time bore him six more. Having a first and second family meant that for fifty years Torleif sat around a dinner table at home with his own young children. He was the father of eight boys and six girls.
Throughout his life, Torleif Knaphus was a devoted genealogist. After his Oslo and Paris studies, he made trips through Norway collecting hundreds of family names. In Utah, when he received his first temple recommend in 1907, he spent the next few months in the temple full time doing proxy work for his ancestors. The morning after he had decided to quit and find work, he was awakened in the early hours by a knocking on his door and a voice telling him: “Get up, make yourself ready and go to the temple. Quit the work on your father’s line and start on your mother’s line.” He obeyed, and continued to work full time in the temple for several months.15
His own efforts and the work of hired genealogists (he devoted five percent of his income to genealogy) helped him push his family lines back twenty-two generations, in some cases to the twelfth century. Reporting on fifty-six years of genealogy labor in 1961, he said his notebooks contained records on more than 10,000 relatives. At one time his mammoth pedigree chart was displayed at the Church Office Building as an example of one of the most complete genealogy records ever assembled.16
He passed away 14 June 1965 at the age of eighty-three. At his funeral Elder LeGrand Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve said that he knew of no single man in the Church who had done more genealogy work than Torleif Knaphus.
To the end he was never boastful of his accomplishments but remained very modest about publicity given his efforts. His life and his monuments bear strong and impressive testimony that Torleif Knaphus loved not only art and beauty but also religion and family. Near the close of his life, in falling health, he expressed a humble assessment of his life’s labors:
“As I in misery recall the days of faith that onward I strived to do right and provide the daily needs, then in gratitude I recognize that there has been a light greater than mine to guide me, and a hand stronger and richer than mine to provide and protect me. A mind richer and greater than mine to plan this, my life, to see through these many years.”17
When we examine closely Torleif’s sculpture, products of a spiritual mind and master craftsman’s hands, we find agreement with the Deseret News eulogy which concluded: “Our world of beauty is richer for his having lived and worked among us.”18