During the time he was president of Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, (now BYU-Idaho) in the mid-1970s, President Henry B. Eyring received an invitation to paint in the outdoors with one of the college’s faculty members, Richard Bird.
After meeting only once or twice, President Eyring, who now serves as the second counselor in the First Presidency, picked up a new way of journaling — through watercolor.
“I don’t consider myself an artist,” President Eyring said. “I am a fellow who likes art and who likes memories. … I can’t resist capturing a memory.”
That day in the outdoors sparked an interest that has continued as President Eyring has raised his family and served in the Presiding Bishopric, as Commissioner of the Church Educational System, as a General Authority Seventy, as an Apostle, and as a counselor in the First Presidency to three prophets.
These small-scale watercolor paintings capture memories and feelings of important people and moments in his life, creating a “visual journal.”
And a new exhibit on the second floor of the Church History Museum — open Nov. 8 through Jan. 21, 2019 — highlights a fraction of those paintings.
“I would have told you (there were only) a few,” he said, surprised at the number of paintings. “I get an idea and then sketch a little bit.”
To date, President Eyring has produced more than 1,000 paintings — and continues to do more. He keeps a set of paints both at home and at his office, and often packs them with him as he travels.
“I’ve learned to do it quickly,” he said.
The exhibit’s title, “A Visual Journal: Artwork of Henry B. Eyring” is exactly that — a journal of his family, friends and important places in his life.
Prior to the exhibit’s official opening, President Eyring took a walk through the new gallery. With each picture he approached, he smiled, pointed at the image and, with emotion in his voice, shared a snippet of what the image in front of him was depicting.
“Sweet Kathy,” he said as he looked at a painting he had done depicting his wife as a young girl in a green rowboat at a favorite family vacation spot. “It is not a great painting, but oh, it really gets me.”
A glance at another painting of his children playing on a beach sparked another memory.
“I hurt my back surfing,” he recalled. So he pulled out his paints and began painting.
A painting of his two daughters as young girls got him talking about his family. Another image of horses sparked a comment about his father, who grew up in the Church colonies in Mexico.
“I painted this for a family home evening,” he said, pointing to the painting “Bark Diana — Bremerhaven, Germany.” The painting depicts a ship crossing choppy waters. Although it wasn’t a memory from his own life, it was the ship on which his ancestors, siblings Henry and Bertha Eyring, traveled to America in about 1840.
He continued through the exhibit, commenting here and there.
“Not bad when you never had a lesson,” he joked.
A painting of Paris again turned his thoughts to his wife.
“Kathy — oh!”
For President Eyring, the images are more than just paint on paper — they are “memories I want to preserve.”
When asked why he does watercolor, he replied: “it’s faster.”
His motivation behind the art — feelings.
“I have feelings while I paint certain kinds of things,” President Eyring said in a video accompanying the exhibit. “I can’t do it unless I have something I care about. So I pray to know; I can’t just go do a picture to do a nice picture.”
Of the more than 100 paintings in the exhibit, the subject matters vary — sometimes highlighting his wife and children, sometimes a memory of a place he has been during his Church service, and sometimes the painting captures a moment in his own family history.
“We found seven categories or reoccurring moments,” said Laura Allred Hurtado, global acquisitions art curator for the Church History Museum. “One of the things I tried to do is get to the core meaning of his paintings, to do more than just recognize the art as worthwhile, but to look at the memories and people.”
Alan Johnson, director of the Church History Museum said, “We are just thrilled that he agreed to let us show his work. … He was not wanting to be the focus or center of attention because he is so humble. But in talking with him, the show became about gratitude, remembering, creativity and love, so once we entered those things into the conversation he was more open to letting us do a show. … It’s really meaningful to him and now it will be meaningful to a lot of other people.”