Torleif Knaphus: Mormon Artist

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Torleif Knaphus Mormon Artist

Torleif Soviren Knaphus was a Utah artist and sculptor whose work was predominantly for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which he was a member.

Knaphus was born in Vats, Rogaland, Norway on December 14, 1881. As a five-year-old child, he loved to carve birds and human heads while caring for the family sheep in the hills near his home. He sketched nature on blank pages his mother bound into a book for him. He was apprenticed to a paint and decorating shop in the city of Haugesund when he was age 14. At the age of 17, he went to sea on a Norwegian fishing boat for a year, but the beauty of the ocean pulled him back to art:

“Art was driven into my soul by the beautiful summer nights I spent as a sailor on the Arctic Ocean. When our little vessel was tossed around by giant blue-green waves under the most dramatic sky in the great Atlantic zone, I decided firmly to be an artist.”[1]

He returned home and resumed his apprenticeship in decoration painting. He earned a master’s slip, which permitted him to be bonded and open a shop.

When Knaphus went to Oslo (formerly called Christiana) to study in Harriet Backer’s prestigious art school, he also studied sculpturing from Lars Utne at the Royal Art School. He studied for three years, and while in Oslo, Knaphus joined the Church of Jesus Christ. His artistic skill earned him a scholarship to study in Rome, but he rejected it in order to immigrate to Utah in 1906. He lived in Salt Lake City and then moved to Sanpete County, which was Utah’s Scandinavian center. He and his brother Andrew set up a house painting business, which they used to provide a living for them and their families until 1912 when Andrew was called on a mission.

In 1913, Knaphus traveled to Paris where he studied sculpting for a year at the Academie Julian. He then studied in New York for six months so that he could study sculpting monuments at the Art Students’ League.

When he returned to Utah, Knaphus resolved to devote his painting and sculpturing talents to the Church of Jesus Christ.

Dedicated His Skills to the Lord

Torleif Naphus Mormon artist

Knaphus worked on the interior of the Laie Hawaii Temple. He helped Avard Fairbanks sculpt the twelve oxen that support the baptismal font. He also touched up mural paintings. He created the model for the baptismal font and oxen for the Cardston Alberta Temple. He also created a large bas-relief for the exterior entitled “Christ the Fountainhead,” which depicts the Savior and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Replicas of this bas-relief are found in the Provo Utah Temple and LDS meetinghouses in Salt Lake City (Sugarhouse), Tremonton, Rose Park, Las Vegas, and other locations.

The twelve terra cotta oxen beneath the baptismal font found in the Mesa Arizona Temple are his creation. He also produced eight friezes depicting the gathering of Israel to Zion that are found in the ornamental band on the tops of the north and south outside walls. He created the oxen and font for the Idaho Falls Idaho Temple and helped with the font for the Oakland California Temple. For the Los Angeles California Temple he assisted with sculpture work for the temple and grounds. He created the large rosette found on the ceiling of the Salt Lake Temple celestial room as well as the wall sconces.

In 1924, the Daughters of the Utah Handcart Pioneers commissioned him to create a monument. The finished bronze was three-feet tall. In 1938, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ commissioned a larger-than-life (heroic) size, which Knaphus had cast in New York. It was unveiled on Temple Square in 1947.

After the Church of Jesus Christ acquired the Hill Cumorah property, Knaphus thought a memorial should be placed there. He presented seven unsolicited designs to the leaders of the Church, and they selected the one design Knaphus considered to be the one God approved of. The monument took him three years to complete. The angel Moroni stands on the top and four bas-reliefs are placed on the sides. One of the reliefs shows the scripture passage from Moroni 10:4 that Knaphus entitled “Exhortation of Moroni.”

The monument was dedicated on July 21, 1935, by Church president Heber J. Grant.

Other Noted Works

Knaphus made other statues of angel Moroni. His statue for the Los Angeles Temple depicted the angel holding plates, which was copied for a time by other sculptors.

He created a bronze called “School Children’s Monument” that is housed in the Salt Lake City and County Building. He created a relief for the Kennecott Copper Mine Visitors Center and a mining relief for Bingham High School. He created busts of several of the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ and civic leaders. He also did decorative molding and painting in the rotunda of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Salt Lake City, the Capitol Theatre, Kingsbury Hall, the Utah Theatre, the Salt Lake Tabernacle and other buildings belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ.

A Devoted Genealogist

Knaphus traveled several times through Norway to collect his family names. He received his first temple recommend in 1907 and spent several months in the temple doing proxy work for his ancestors. The morning after he decided to set aside this full-time temple effort in order to find work, he was awakened by knocking on his door and heard a voice tell him to get up, go to the temple, quit working on your father’s ancestral line, and start working on your mother’s. So for several months, he devoted himself to temple work again.

Researching by himself, or paying genealogists to help him, he was able to go back twenty-two generations. In 1961, he said that his notebooks were filled with records on more than 10,000 relatives. For a period of time, his family pedigree chart was on display at the Church Office Building as an example of one of the most complete genealogy records ever assembled.

A Family Man

Knaphus married Emilia “Millie” Helena Christensen in 1909 and they had six children. She unexpectedly died in 1931 and although people offered to help him by adopting the youngest three children, he refused, and spent eight years taking his youngest child to work with him while he tried to be both father and mother to his children. In 1940 he married Rebecca Marie Jacobson. They had six more children.

Knaphus died on June 14, 1965.

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