He was a Seventh Day Adventist, but his paintings of Bible subjects are among the most familiar and pervasive in Latter-day Saint culture. Now, much of that artwork is being spotlighted in a new exhibition at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City.
“A Legacy in the Making: The Paint Studies of Harry Anderson” opened Sept. 23 and will remain through April of next year at the museum, located west of Temple Square.
What makes this exhibition unusual is that it features 25 paint studies Mr. Anderson completed as preparation for the paintings the Church commissioned him to do, beginning with a large work, “Christ Ordaining the Apostles,” for the Mormon Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Through the end of the decade and well into the 1970s, the artist completed numerous works for various uses in Church publications, meetinghouses, visitors’ centers and temples.
The paint studies on display in the museum exhibit are done on illustration board with a common illustrator’s medium called casein (Mr. Anderson spent much of his early career as an illustrator). Their purpose was concept approval before the creation of the final paintings.
In addition to the paint studies, the exhibition features three completed works by the artist, allowing visitors in each instance to compare the study with the finished product.
The studies were donated by Kristin Geddis and her family. She is a daughter of Mr. Anderson, who died Nov. 19, 1996.
“In May of 2015, I received a call from Kristin,” said Laura Allred Hurtado, the museum’s global acquisition’s art curator. “She said, ‘I’m the daughter of Harry Anderson, and I have a couple of sketches that you might want to look at.’ It was really an understatement.”
Already in New York on business, Sister Hurtado made immediate arrangements to travel to Richfield, Connecticut, to meet with Mrs. Geddis.
“I wasn’t certain what I would find,” she said. “I thought maybe a sketch book. And I was just blown away by these preparatory paint studies that were just amazing, all of them works we know so well, and gorgeous and beautiful and intimate.”
Sister Hurtado said the studies enable Church members “to look at images so familiar but to see them with new eyes. It transforms them. The brush strokes are loose, they’re expressive, the colors are brighter; it’s like seeing a sketch of the Mona Lisa.”
The paint studies “give new life to Harry Anderson, new life to his work and ultimately and importantly, new life to these stories that are so beloved to Christians around the world,” she said.
Mrs. Geddis, who attended an opening reception for the exhibition with six members of her family, said regarding the sketches, “We found them in a corner of my dad’s studio in Richfield, Connecticut, and we contacted the Mormon church, because we knew that they would probably want them.”
She said the commission from the Church was an important step in the artist’s career. “He was asked to do paintings that were bigger than he had ever done before, and he accepted the challenge readily, which he always did. He was a guy that liked challenges.”
Grandson Briggs Geddis said Mr. Anderson seemed to despise talking about his personal talent, but he would readily discuss his paintings and their religious and cultural significance.
The exhibition features an interactive kiosk that will appeal to young visitors.
One of the sketches on display clearly shows the artist’s innovative string grid system he used to transfer his studies into his finished paintings. A brochure available at the exhibition features a reproduction of a portion of one of the works with a grid network over it and invites the visitor to try transferring one of the squares in the painting into an empty space that is provided.