After attending a beautiful Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Sunday, January 8, 2006, a group from work drove over to Gilgal Sculptural Garden at 749 East 500 South in Salt Lake City.
The garden is the work of Thomas Battersby Child Jr. The long-time Mormon bishop constructed the garden very meticulously during the mid-Twentieth Century. During his lifetime, Child showed his monumental works to thousands of visitors. He hoped that it would encourage lay philosophers to ponder “the mysteries of life” and seek their own answers to the grand metaphysical questions. “You don’t have to agree with me,” Bishop Child explained. “You may think I am a nut, but I hope I have aroused your thinking and curiosity.”
Gilgal Garden — with its 12 original sculptures and over 70 stelas engraved with scriptures, poems, and literary texts — stands with the Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels, 2 Jewish graves at Clarion, Topaz Camp, and petroglyphs in Nine Mile Canyon as Utah’s foremost “alternative” outdoor spriritual vortexes.
The Joseph Smith Sphinx is the best-known sculpture in Gilgal Garden. When I first heard of the Sphinx, I assumed it was a parody. Of course, I was wrong. It is, according to Bishop Child, “the basis of thought or inspiration for all that is built around it.” According to Gilgal’s website, the Sphinx is an ancient symbol of mystery, and Smith’s visage symbolizes Child’s conviction that the Mormon priesthood reveals to mankind the answers to life’s mysteries.
One of Child’s monuments is dedicated to last chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. The biblical author’s genius as a poet was demonstrated in this beautiful poem on old age:
. . . when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets.
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
Vanities of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.
Child’s tribute to Ecclesiastes includes objects from this biblical verse. He planted an almond tree which thrived until 1963 when it died, ironically the same year as Child. Child was particularly proud of the grasshopper in his monument. It was displayed in New York City for a year by the Linde Air Products Co. which made the oxyacetylene torches that were used to carve and engrave Gilgal’s monuments. On a stela in the foreground of his Ecclesiasties tribute, Child inscribed: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
The cyncial wisdom of Ecclesiastes would appear to be in direct contradiction to the attempted neat and tidy wisdom of Child’s chosen religion. For example, if there is no ultimate purpose to life (all is vanity), then why should we care whether we are wise or foolish, righteous or wicked? Ecclesiastes would seem an odd choice of scripture for a Mormon bishop. But then again, Child’s garden is anything but predictable. Again, he wants us to think.
The most prominent momument is a Child self-portrait. With it Child conveys his great love for the masonry trade and his religion. The figure of Child holds a Bible under one arm and blueprints under the other.