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Celebrating the Art of Mahonri Young
by Norma S. Davis

He created much more than the seagull monument.

Click for Enlargement
Click for EnlargementDanbury Fair: Man With Scythe
(Used by Permission of BYU's Museum of Art)

Those who previously have known Mahonri Young solely as a sculptor and associated his name principally with Utah and the This Is the Place and Seagull monuments have only seen the merest tip of the iceberg. For a better view, this is the time to enjoy an inspiring exhibition of the works of Mahonri Mackintosh Young—sculptor, etcher, painter and draftsman.

On October 14, 1999, the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah opened a year-long celebration of Young's art in a large retrospective exhibition titled "Mahonri: A Song of Joys" (see Museum of Art website for exhibition details). Delightful surprises have greeted all those who have attended.

Art at its best, teaches us to see—to observe the world and rejoice in its many facets. What Mahonri saw was the people and their occupations in farms, deserts, mountains, cities, and ports. As he put it: "Nature has been always my continual delight for I am and have always been, as Gautier says of himself, 'one for whom the visible world exists.' In everyday language, I am eye-minded."(1)

Click for EnlargementNavajo Woman and Herd
(Used by Permission of BYU's Museum of Art)

And what a wonderful, humorous, solemn, joyful, laborious, colorful, meditative, exciting world existed within the scope of Young's vision! Men scythe fields in the shadow of the Danbury Hills of Connecticut, and women tend sheep on the mesas of Arizona. The Hokey-Pokey man vends treats to children on the streets of New York, and an Italian woman bends over a river scrubbing her laundry. Cats sleep in rattan chairs, lions languidly stretch out on the ground, insects hover over leaves, and a hippopotamus turns its back on the artist to sit down with unmistakable solidity. Children lean over the edge of a boat fascinated by the water life below them. Aged Parisian garlic sellers wearily look out at the viewer. A ballerina contemplates her routine, a boxer struggles to accept his defeat, a fisherman casts his line into a mountain stream, Hopi dancers scoop rattlesnakes into their arms, lobster men carry heavy baskets filled with their catch, farmers harvest corn, and a Breton shepherdess knits while her sheep snuggle against her body for warmth. It would appear no one escaped the artist's attention or admiration. Through Young's art, visitors to either exhibition are invited into a world peopled by men, women, and children who give us new perspectives on the trials and pleasures of human existence.

Plaster Study of Hosanna Shout--
This is the Place Monument

(Used by Permission of BYU's Museum of Art)

At the same time, one comes face to face with art of an exceptionally high quality. In addition to his success as a sculptor, Young was a prize-winning etcher, received national acclaim as a master draftsman, was given one-man shows for his watercolors at major museums, and saw his oil paintings hung in places of honor at countless exhibitions. The diversity of Young's artistic achievements are represented not only from the collections at Weir Farm and the Museum of Art, but also from major museums and private collections throughout the United States. We are never allowed to forget that, above all, Young is an artist:

I have gone to nature for my inspiration and subject matter. But observation is not enough no matter how keen or how profound. It must afterwards be made into a work of art and that is where design comes in. . . . I assure you that I have never attempted anything without reverently consulting the masters. (2)

Observation, training, design, and a deep interest in the subject depicted--all are necessary for true artistry.

Click for EnlargementHippopotamus
(Used by Permission of BYU's Museum of Art)

Each medium carries its own technical demands. Young meets the three-dimensional challenges of a bronze sculpture of Alcmene struggling to control her son, Hercules, as he wiggles out of her reach. Then he controls the complex format of a county fair, where crowds shout, bands play, horses race, acrobats balance on a high-wire, and judges view livestock all at the same time. Young explained the difference in his approach between the two mediums: "Sculpture must be considered only within itself, self-contained, but when I paint, I am interested in the crowds, in the color of the crowds, and in their environment."(3)

On the Button
(Used by Permission of BYU's Museum of Art)

The careful balance of light and shadow found in his skillful etching of the Main Street boxing gym in Los Angeles can also be found in the play of light over the convex and concave forms of a sculpted boxer landing a blow precisely "on the button" of his opponent. The strength and power of his sculptures of Industry and Agriculture, hardly prepare the viewer for the tenderness of Cecelia and Bill, depicting the artist's wife holding their son in her arms. Then there are the quick sketches, the "notes" taken by the artist for future reference, which capture in a few strokes the essence of a Paris street corner, a Navajo hogan, or a mountain cabin in the Uintas. When these are compared to the sense of the monumental found not only in the heroic-sized figures of the This Is the Place monument but also in a much smaller statuette of a prospector standing on a trail with his donkey, one is reminded that Young once said: "The value of sketches and studies lies in their sharpness and momentary vividness. In a finished work the great value lies in its sense of permanence." (4) In whichever medium Young uses to present his ideas, the skill of a master artist is evident.

Click for Enlargement174 C Street, Salt Lake City, Mahonri's Home
(Used by Permission of BYU's Museum of Art)

Mahonri Mackintosh Young was born August 9, 1877 in Salt Lake City to Mahonri Moriancumer and Agnes Mackintosh Young. He was the last of Brigham Young's grandchildren to be born before the death of that great leader. His artistic training began in Utah under James T. Harwood, and continued with Kenyon Cox for one year at the Art Students League in New York City and four years in Paris principally at the Julian Academy under Jean Paul Lauren. His first entry of sculptures and drawings at the Old Salon in Paris won him immediate international recognition. He continued to exhibit widely in Paris, Rome, South America, and throughout the United States, gathering honors and prizes through the years. One month short of his 70th birthday, he saw the dedication of his This Is the Place monument on the eastern slopes of Salt Lake City and then, with hardly a breath of rest, went on to create the Brigham Young sculpture for Statuary Hall in the nation's capitol. He died in Connecticut at the age of 80 and was buried beside his wife and parents in Salt Lake City. His was an active, rich and rewarding career—full of the challenges and rewards not unlike the ones he observed in the lives of others. As he once said:

To be an artist you have to have two contradictory characteristics. You must be sensitive above the average and at the same time have the skin of a hickory tree. Those with only the first characteristic soon drop out, the hard-boiled ones continue but aren't good artists. If anybody can do anything else they should, for it's a very hard life. (5)(Ibid)

He further quipped to his son: "Artists have to be good businessmen. They sell a product nobody needs and few people want." (6)

Click for EnlargementCecelia Sharpe Young
(Used by Permission of BYU's Museum of Art)

Many feel the need for art of the content and quality found in the exhibitions of Mahonri Young's work showing at BYU's Museum of Art, and will want to come again and again to experience this artist''s particular vision. To this end, the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University has published a definitive, 336 page biography of the artist, with over 200 color and black and white illustrations. A Song of Joys: the Biography of Mahonri Mackintosh YoungSculptor, Painter, Etcher by Norma S. Davis includes many works seen in the Museum of Art's exhibition as well as additional pieces and provides an in-depth study of the artist and his work.



1. "Random Comments by Mahonri Young" from the files of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid

6. Note found in the papers of the artist's son, Mahonri Sharp Young, in the private collection of Mahonri M. Young II.


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