38th Annual Russel B. Swensen Lecture
"Not By the Hand of God: Maynard Dixon, Everett Thorpe, and the Mural Contest for Provo's Post Office"
In 1939, the newly constructed US Post Office in Provo, Utah, called for proposals to commission a mural for the building. The accomplished Western painter Maynard Dixon submitted an entry and must have felt confident that it would be selected. For his entry, Dixon painted a handful of Mormon settlers focused on their leader Brigham Young. Overhead, in the clouds, he also included a large palm, the “Hand of God,” in a gesture of blessing the land. The inclusion of a metaphysical element seemed logical for Dixon who noted Mormonism’s “flare of the supernatural.” However, the commission instead went to a young Utah painter named Everett Thorpe, who completed "Old and New Provo" three years later. Thorpe’s mural was remarkably different from Dixon’s proposal in its presentation of a more complicated and thorny history of Utah County.
Swensen's presentation investigates this important post office commission and the mural that still hangs on its original wall. It also seeks to explain the reasons for Dixon’s rejection and why Thorpe’s vision of Provo was accepted and subsequently forgotten.
James Swensen, associate professor of comparative arts and letters in the BYU College of Humanities, researches documentary photography, American photography in the 1930s and 1970s, and the art and photography of Utah and the American West. He is the author of Picturing Migrants: The Grapes of Wrath and New Deal Documentary Photography (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), and In a Rugged Land: Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and the Three Mormon Towns Collaboration, 1953-1954 (University of Utah Press, 2018). He is the recipient of the 2016-2019 Butler Young Scholar from the Charles Redd Center for Western American Studies, the LeRoy Axland Best Utah History Article Award in 2018. In 2019, his book In a Rugged Land received the Best Book in Utah History Book Award from the Utah State Historical Society, the Joan Paterson Kerr Book Award for best illustrated book on the history of the American West from the Western History Association, and an honorable mention for the best book of the year award from the Mormon History Association. Swensen completed his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona in 2009.
Students in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences gain Experience Points for attending this lecture. Learn more about Experience Points.