“The Martyrdom As Seen by a Young Mormon Artist,” New Era, Dec. 1973, 20
Since Gary Smith joined the Church in 1966, the life and particularly the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith have consumed much of his creative energy.
“I became really converted to the gospel through studying the Prophet and what he accomplished. Somehow I wanted to record my feelings about the events in his life,” Gary said.
Because he was trying to emphasize the spiritual and emotional qualities of the Prophet’s experiences, he chose not to paint them in a realistic fashion. The paintings are historically accurate only in a basic sense: the situations depict events that really happened. Gary believes that if the figures had been photographically rendered, the emphasis would have been wrongfully taken away from the spiritual qualities of the Prophet’s life. He also felt that having recognizable individuals would have detracted from the power of the total event.
“I did not want to be illustrative. I simply wanted to project my feelings about the event. That is the reason for this stylized technique that is reminiscent of art done in the 1840s. For instance, I’ve never visited Nauvoo, and I didn’t want to even see the Carthage Jail, because I didn’t want to be influenced by the realism of the situations. The emotional feelings I have toward this event had to be my main influence.”
The death of the Prophet was both tragic and significant. It offered strong pictorial possibilities. Throughout the ages martyrs have been important subjects for artists. The primitive style of these paintings was carefully perfected by Gary as he researched and sketched events in the life of the Prophet. The emotional content of the paintings is heightened with the use of vivid colors, usually reds and oranges. Strongly symbolic figures representing good and evil, light and darkness, play their parts against the colors of the emotionally charged backgrounds. Joseph Smith is always depicted in white, in contrast to the dark forces of evil surrounding him. Light is usually on him or radiating from him. This makes the conflict between good and evil not only visual but easier to understand and feel. Other elements of technique in these paintings include the use of symmetry and principles of the divine section. Both of these elements were discovered and first used in Egyptian art. Such Egyptian art portrayed the religious thoughts of the people to a degree that has been seldom if ever equaled. Gary Smith’s martyrdom series is for the people—for the Mormon people who have the heart and testimony to remember the life and death of their first latter-day prophet.