C. C. A. Christensen was a Danish convert to the Church in territorial Utah who spent winters when he would not be busy on his Ephraim, Utah, farm traveling to Mormon pioneer settlements giving lectures on Church history illustrated by his own vivid paintings.
"The success I have had everywhere I have shown these scenes has far exceeded my expectations and has undoubtedly planted many a seed which, particularly in the hearts of the children, will bear good fruit," the artist predicted.
Now, several generations later, Brother Christensen's prediction and legacy are being perpetuated in a new dramatization of his traveling "Mormon Panorama" that premiered June 3 at This Is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, the opening event of the park's new educational institute (see accompanying article on page 10). The above words, taken from the script used by Brother Christensen at his lectures, are part of a portrayal of him by Paul Anderson of the BYU Museum of Art in the new presentation.
Brother Christensen's paintings are familiar to many Church members and lovers of art in general, as they have been collected and preserved by the university and published many times. But through the magic of digital photography and reproduction, the paintings may now be viewed with a vibrancy and splendor that up to now has not been experienced by anyone in this generation.
"We used the latest technology, all digital, from beginning to end," said artist and fine-art printer Robert Rumel, who took digital photos of the paintings in the BYU collection, enhanced and enlarged them using digital-imaging software, and printed them on vinyl with nylon mesh, comparable in thickness to the muslin sheets on which the originals were painted.
Like those originals, the 22 reproductions were
arranged in a continuous scroll. However, whereas Brother Christensen sewed his paintings together so they could be sequentially unrolled for display during his presentations, the reproductions were printed on a single continuous 175-foot sheet, a process that occupied 24 continuous hours, Brother Rumel said.
Because of the nature of the medium, the reproductions are far less vulnerable than the originals from which they were made, he said. "As the ink touched the surface, it etched into the vinyl so that it's going to last forever."
Do they look better than the originals?
"There are not as many scratches, but it has the patina of that age." Absent, though, are the tell-tale wear marks present on some of the originals, likely resulting from ravages of storage and continuous rolling and unrolling for display.
Presented inside the replica of Salt Lake City's 19th Century Social Hall in the park's Old Deseret Village, the program featured authentic trappings, including green draperies surrounding the scenes depicting the Church history events.
"In fact, C.C.A.'s wife made green curtains, and we know that from documents," said Jan Harris, director of the new This Is The Place Institute. "It gives it kind of this theatrical effect."
Sister Harris said the presentation makes use of the script for the original lecture, albeit condensed from about an hour and a half to roughly 40 minutes "because modern audiences are not used to this kind of entertainment."
Brother Christensen, who was educated at the Royal Academy of Art in Denmark and joined the Church in 1850 before coming to Utah Territory as a handcart pioneer in 1857, developed the lecture from interviews, Sister Harris said. "He recognized the fact in the 1870s that many of the original witnesses to the events in Ohio and Missouri and in Illinois were dying." She said he interviewed them to get first-hand accounts of the events. Working from these accounts, plus detailed descriptions and photographs, he developed the script and the paintings. In the script, for example, he notes the fact that his paintings of Liberty and Carthage jails are "true representations." Seated in the Social Hall audience at the premiere June 3 were descendants of Brother Christensen, many of whom had donated funds for the project. Family spokesman Brent L. Bishop, in preliminary remarks, said, "I'm sure, tonight, as crowded as this building is in the seats, there are those above us and around us who are on the other side who are celebrating as well."
Affecting a convincing Danish accent, Brother Anderson spoke as Brother Christensen, saying that he painted the scenes over about 12 years beginning in 1878. Describing his background, he said that after his conversion, he served a mission for the Church in his native Denmark, then Norway, before fulfilling a desire "to gather with the saints in America." On the boat, he was married, and he and his wife had a "handcart honeymoon," he said.
The script, as voiced by actor Anderson, reflected Brother Christensen's reverence for the sacrifices of the early Church members as well as his sparkling wit. Occasionally, he would direct fill-in-the-blank questions to children and others in the audience, testing their knowledge of Church history, and the lecture was augmented with singing of the hymns "An Angel from on High," "Come, Come, Ye Saints" and "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet." During the scene of the martyrdom, a pianist played "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief," the song sung by John Taylor who was with the Prophet Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail.
Concluding the lecture, Brother Christensen, as portrayed by Brother Anderson, said, "I can see now that the hand of the Lord has been in all this, and I only wonder that I did not begin 20 years earlier. A whole generation who bore the burdens of the day in persecutions in Ohio and in Missouri and in Illinois will no longer be with us just a few years hence. History will preserve much, but art alone can make the suffering of the saints comprehensible to posterity."
Profuse applause from the audience in the Social Hall affirmed that sentiment.
According to the park's Web site, "C.C.A.'s Mormon Panorama will be shown on special event days throughout the summer and is available for group showings upon request. Please call (801)582-1847 for show dates and times or for group reservations."
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