“Minerva Kohlhepp Teichert: With a Bold Brush,” Ensign, Apr. 1989, 34
By the time the sun began to sparkle on the Bear River and warm the cattle on the Wyoming range, Minerva Teichert had been up for some time. There was breakfast to cook for Herman, the five children, and a few ranch hands. Every morning there were bottles for the dairy that would take several hours to scour. Besides that, there were chickens to tend, clothes to wash and mend, a garden to weed. By the time the household quieted down for the evening, she had cooked two more meals and finished a variety of other chores that life on a ranch in the 1930s demanded.
But still Minerva’s day was not complete. It never was until she had picked up her brush and her “palette”—a long piece of wood dabbed with oil paint—and spent a few precious moments at her canvas.
When Minerva Teichert held a paintbrush, it was not to dabble. She was too “filled and thrilled,” she said, by the heroism of the pioneers, too enchanted by the strong beauty of the American Indian, too captivated by the glory of animals in unfettered motion, to take her subjects lightly. From childhood, the faith of the prophets had flowed in her veins. And all her life, her love for the beautiful and the heroic drove her to give it expression on canvas. This she did with bold strokes, in a style uniquely hers.
Last year, for the one-hundredth anniversary of her birth, the Museum of Church History and Art featured a collection of Minerva Kohlhepp Teichert’s work. In past years, her paintings have appeared in Church magazines and manuals, but widespread recognition of Sister Teichert’s importance as an artist has been slow in coming. This show gave many Church members their first opportunity to see a large collection of her original artwork firsthand. The show included a selection of her forty-plus-piece Book of Mormon mural series, murals chronicling the Latter-day Saint pioneer trek and the settling of the American West, portraits, still-life floral paintings, and work from her student days.
Minerva Kohlhepp was just four years old when her mother, a strong and creative woman, gave her a set of watercolors. From that moment, the child considered herself an artist. Everywhere she went, Minerva carried a sketchpad and charcoal or pencil.
Born on 28 August 1888 in North Ogden, Utah, Minerva was the second of ten Kohlhepp children. Most of her early years were spent on her family’s Idaho homestead. Her father, Frederick John Kohlhepp, was a cultured gentleman who gave up the prosperity of his Boston family to go west in search of adventure. When he found Mary Ella Hickman and the restored gospel, he embraced both.
The Kohlhepp family was poor financially, but life on the homestead near Pocatello was rich food for Minerva’s taste for drama and romance. With no school nearby, Minerva had little formal education as a small child. But each night her father gathered the children around to read the scriptures or classics of literature. “My parents were dreamers,” she later recalled. “Oh, the fairyland we lived in.” (“Miss Kohlhepp’s Own Story,” Pocatello, Idaho, 1917.)
In a willow patch near their farm, young Minerva acted out plays with her older sister. Working in the fields with her father, she dreamed as he described faraway places and peoples he had seen. She raced the wind on Gem, the fine, fast horse she had paid for with three summers’ work in the hay fields. When a wild horse was rounded up, she ran to the corral to capture the ripples of its muscles in her sketchbook.
Throughout her life, she loved filling her canvases with the rough beauty of the desert, her palette reflecting the blues and greys of the distant mountains. She had a particular love for painting animals. “The movement she captured in horses and cattle is magnificent,” comments Nancy Webb, a writer who recently reviewed the museum exhibit for Southwest Art and whose article on Minerva Teichert appeared in the March 1989 issue.
Minerva left home for the first time at age fourteen to work as a nursemaid for a wealthy Idaho family in San Francisco. There she saw museum art for the first time and attended classes at Mark Hopkins Art School. But it was not until she had graduated from high school back home and taught school for several years that she was able to pursue any serious training in art.
By age nineteen, she had scraped together enough money to go to Chicago, where she studied at the Chicago Art Institute under the great draftsman John Vanderpoel, a master of the academic school of painting. Several times during her three-year course she had to go home to earn more money in the fields or in the classroom. But always she returned to follow her dream. With characteristic confidence, Minerva once confronted Mr. Vanderpoel, asking why he criticized her work so harshly when so many classmates were doing much poorer work. She later recalled, “I shall never forget the disappointment on the dear little man’s face when he answered in a choked voice, ‘Miss Idaho, can it be possible you do not understand; they’re not worth it, they will drop out, but you—ah, there is no end.’” (“Miss Kohlhepp’s Own Story.”)
By 1912, she had finished her course at the Art Institute and returned west to earn more money. During this period she spent time “proving up” on her own homestead in Indian Warm Springs, Idaho—sleeping with a revolver under her pillow for protection in her isolated cabin. She was also courted by two young men—calling off a wedding with one wealthy suitor when she learned that he didn’t want to be married in a Mormon church. The other young man, not a Church member either (she knew no Latter-day Saint young men), was Herman Teichert. Herman was a gentle cowboy whose favorite sport was chasing wild horses on the desert by moonlight. In April 1915, however, she left Herman behind, telling him to marry someone else, and went to the Art Students’ League in New York City.
At the time, the League was one of the most important art centers in the world, the great European academies having waned in influence and American art having begun a period of vitalization. Minerva paid for the privilege of studying there in a variety of ways, including sketching cadavers for medical schools and performing rope tricks and Indian dances. Minerva’s trademark headband, which she jokingly said she wore to “hold in her brains,” was a reminder of her colorful employment as an Indian dancer in New York.
Studying under George Bridgman and Dimitri Romanoffski and then on scholarship under Robert Henri gave Minerva solid training in drawing and portraiture. Robert Henri, a renowned teacher and prominent American realist, reportedly ranked her among his top three students—along with George Bellows and John Sloan, later recognized as foremost twentieth-century American artists. According to Robert Davis, curator of the Church museum’s Teichert exhibit, at the end of her course at the League Minerva was poised “on the threshold of becoming a major American artist.” (“I Must Paint,” in Rich in Story, Great in Faith: The Art of Minerva Kohlhepp Teichert, Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1988, p. 43.)
At this critical juncture of her life, Minerva had two experiences that steered her out of the mainstream of the art world and back to the West. The first experience crystallized her desire for life with a family—specifically, for life with Herman. In a testimony meeting in the Harlem Ward, she was listening to a sister speak on the joys of marriage and motherhood. “I thot of all the men I had met in my search for getting gold,” wrote Minerva later. At that moment, she realized that “back on the Idaho desert, herding his cattle and branding his calves was a man more nearly meant for me than anyone else in the world.” (Unpublished autobiographical sketch, 1937, transcription from handwritten manuscript.) Never one to agonize over decisions or to doubt her own judgment, Minerva determined to return home.
The other experience helped her to solidify her feeling that she had a mission as an artist and that she should place her art in the service of her faith. Minerva later recorded how Robert Henri asked her, shortly before she left New York, whether any artist had ever told the “great Mormon story.”
“‘Not to suit me,’ I answered. ‘Good Heavens, girl, what a chance. You do it. You’re the one. Oh, to be a Mormon.’ I said to him, ‘You could be.’ He paused almost reverently for a moment, then answered, ‘That’s your birthright. You feel it. You’ll do it well.’ I felt that I had been commissioned.” (Unpublished ms., 1947.)
Minerva Teichert spent the rest of her life and her enormous vitality answering these two callings—one to love and serve her family, the other to tell the story of her people and her faith through her art.
The two callings did not mesh easily, but Minerva never lost sight of either. Early in her marriage, while Herman was in France during World War I, Minerva became dangerously ill with influenza. She later wrote: “I was sinking so fast when I thot of prayer. I thot of my years of study and so I had done nothing with my art education. Suddenly I was keenly sensitive. I promised the Lord if I’d finished my work and he’d give me some more, I’d gladly do it. With this covenant in my heart I began to live.” (Unpublished autobiography, 1937.) During her illness, Minerva’s dark hair grayed, which ever after reminded her of her promise.
When Herman returned, he and Minerva moved to the old Teichert homestead in the bottomlands of the Snake River. Minerva loved this place, but they were eventually forced to leave by the construction of a new reservoir. They made their new home on a cattle ranch at Cokeville, Wyoming, where Minerva painted scenes of the “Bottoms” in a frieze around the living room. For more than forty years, this room was both Minerva’s studio and the hub of the Teichert household. She cooked meals on a wood-burning stove, occasionally adding a touch to a painting as she cooked. Every night while the family ate supper, she read to them—literature, history, and the scriptures.
In that same living room she developed a strong, original style as she painted hundreds of murals, portraits, and other works. The conditions were far from ideal for painting. The room was too small to spread out her larger murals. She sometimes had to fold the canvas, painting one section at a time. To see her murals in perspective, she would look into the large end of a pair of binoculars. The room had no north-facing window, so the light was constantly shifting. Distractions were constant. But somehow Minerva persisted. “I must paint,” she once explained. (Unpublished ms., 1947.)
That little room was far from anyone who could talk with her about art, encourage her in her work, or give her critical opinions. But Minerva had an unusual ability to validate her own efforts. And perhaps her distance from the art establishment actually helped her to develop her own distinctive style.
Minerva’s life was firmly rooted in ideas and people, not in things. “You don’t want too many things,” she once wrote. “They become a burden. In fact, we shouldn’t have too many things in this life, just enough for our needs. … Do good with all the rest.”
In the early years of her marriage, money for paint was scarce. Often Minerva painted and sketched on masonite, scraps of wood, even brown paper. Although she valued her gift, she never overvalued her individual paintings. One of her sons rescued a Minerva Teichert self-portrait on a board she had been using when she chopped off chicken’s heads.
Over the years, Minerva used her art to serve many people. She gave paintings to Brigham Young University to pay tuition so that children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and other young people could attend college. She gave away floral paintings for weddings and to comfort bereaved friends.
In fact, her generosity became legendary in her community. She took several relatives in to live with her family. When a younger brother, Viva, was partially paralyzed and brain injured by a bullet wound, he found a home with the Teicherts. “I can’t think of a time when she didn’t have someone she was helping,” recalls her son Hamilton. She gave away eggs and cream, and the Teicherts paid good wages to young men who needed work. She always wore a fur coat because she was allergic to wool, but her son Robert remembers that once she stopped wearing it for a while because she knew others couldn’t afford fur.
Perhaps even more important than her generosity with the few material goods she had was the way she tirelessly shared her spiritual gifts. Once, Minerva met a young woman who was considered the “ugly duckling” of her family. Minerva told her, “Why, you are one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen,” and told her she wanted to paint her. “That girl blossomed because someone had recognized her beauty,” says Shirley Teichert, Minerva’s daughter-in-law.
Minerva shared her aesthetic vision freely and naturally. For years, her son Hamilton and his wife, Shirley, lived just a block or so from Minerva and Herman. Shirley remembers sitting on the porch with her mother-in-law. “She’d ask me, ‘What are you looking at?’ I’d tell her I was seeing green leaves and blue sky. Then she’d tell me what I was really seeing, explaining the shadows and shadings of color.” Shirley also got a chance to paint backgrounds and borders on some of her mother-in-law’s paintings.
In fact, many Cokeville neighbors—children and adults—got their first art lessons in the Teichert living room. The first project was usually a still-life painting of a little black vase of Minerva’s. After that, her students graduated to painting a picture of a Beethoven bust. All the while, Minerva talked, instructing them on bones and muscles, light and color, and the wonder of the Creation. “She wasn’t just teaching art,” recalls Shirley. “She was teaching art and life and love.” Those who showed promise were often recruited to paint backgrounds for Minerva. Many others served as models for her paintings.
Minerva’s knowledge of human anatomy found practical application on the ranch. Since she knew the human skeletal system well, she could tell if a bone was broken. People who had had accidents around the ranch often came to Minerva for an opinion. Then, as soon as she had made her diagnosis, Minerva would pray over the injury. Daughter Laurie Teichert Eastwood recalls a young man who was injured in a car accident several years after he had worked on the Teichert ranch. Although he was not a Church member, he told his mother that if she would “get Mrs. Teichert over to pray for me, I’ll be all right.”
The Teichert home was a haven for grandchildren in later years. “We didn’t knock,” remembers Trudy Teichert Lamb, the first Teichert granddaughter. The grandchildren would head straight to the bread drawer for spice cake, ginger snaps, or a piece of bread to toast on the coal stove. “I don’t ever recall her saying, ‘Just a minute.’ If she was working on a painting, she would put down her paintbrush, telling us about her painting.” The little ones enjoyed reading a copy of Brer Rabbit their grandmother had illustrated for them. Older grandchildren got to spend the night on the feather bed. Minerva would always find work for grandchildren who wanted to earn money. Trudy remembers helping her grandmother wallpaper. “She wasn’t at all bothered by the wrinkles and thought I’d done a wonderful job.”
For all her loving nature, Minerva was also feisty and opinionated. A daughter-in-law might find that Grandma had cut off a grandchild’s braids if she felt that the child’s hair was too unruly. Many children got instructions from Minerva on how to improve their posture or hold their mouths. She was also an outspoken political conservative who fought to keep bootleggers out of Cokeville and spoke out to support women’s rights. In later years, Trudy remembers typing letters for her grandmother to congressmen and to the president of the United States.
In the Church, Minerva served at various times as Primary president, Gospel Doctrine teacher, and member of the stake Sunday School board. As a Beehive teacher, she made papier-mâché maps of the Holy Land and taught the girls scarf dances. She considered her art another of her Church callings and had grand dreams of a great art school in Salt Lake City. Ted Wassmer, an artist who knew Minerva when he was a young man, recalls her telling him that she would love to paint the ceiling of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, much as Michelangelo had painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Minerva’s spiritual life was guided by dreams and by an increasing ability to rely on the Lord. As a young mother, she turned down an opportunity to study in London with her great teacher Robert Henri when she dreamed of a daughter who would soon be born to her. Laurie, the only Teichert daughter, was born within the next year or so. In the same way, Minerva saw future daughters-in-law in dreams before she met them. She trusted implicitly what she felt the Lord had told her and taught her children and grandchildren to rely on his guidance.
One of the highlights of her spiritual life was the baptism of Herman in 1933. He had supported her Church participation for years and had long paid tithing. Later that year they were sealed in the Logan Temple. Herman later became a counselor to Bishop Reed Dayton, with whom he served for more than twenty years. Bishop Dayton was the model for Jesus, and Herman was the model for Peter for Minerva’s painting Cast Your Nets to the Other Side.
Minerva Teichert’s mission in art had two crowning points. One was the completion of the Book of Mormon mural series. Minerva gave special attention to women in these paintings, as she did in much of her other work. Although this and other works of hers were illustrative in nature, her technical skill and stylistic strength take her work beyond illustration. Robert S. Olpin, dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah and author of the Dictionary of Utah Art, comments, “For my money, Minerva Teichert brings the freshest vision to the stories of the Book of Mormon of any artist. And I really can’t get over how strong she is on a large scale.” Placing her work in the context of American art of the day, Dr. Olpin sees Minerva Teichert’s murals as fitting between the large-scale works of the turn of the century, with their thrust and dynamism, and murals of the Depression era. Teichert colleague Ted Wassmer comments on Minerva’s style of leaving out details: “In her painting, the suggestion is greater than the completed statement. I think that is why her painting is so alive and has such a spiritual quality.”
Dr. Olpin calls Minerva “one of the very best artists we’ve ever had” for her ability to combine sound technique with authentic feeling. According to Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Art Museum, her strength as a painter lies in part in the integrity between her message and her means of expressing it.
Minerva had felt that having her Book of Mormon series published by the Church would be the ultimate fulfillment of her mission as an artist. When she could interest no one in publishing the paintings, she was devastated and eventually donated them to Brigham Young University.
But if the reception of the Book of Mormon murals was one of her life’s greatest disappointments, her commission to paint murals in the World Room in the Manti Temple was one of its great satisfactions. In 1947, at the age of fifty-nine, Minerva Teichert and an assistant painted the temple room in a matter of several months, a remarkable example of her almost unimaginable vitality.
By her death in 1976 at the age of eighty-seven, Minerva Kohlhepp Teichert had created perhaps as many as a thousand pieces of art. “Eternity seems very real to me,” she wrote in her 1937 autobiography. Then, expressing her eternal wish: “I want … to be able to paint after I leave here. Even though I should come back nine times I still would not have exhausted my supply of subjects and one life time is far too short but may be a schooling for the next.”