Provo artist honors the “unsung heroes” of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

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Fred Howard sat quietly in the back of the old Tabernacle one evening, listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir practice. On that night, he listened intently to the organ towering powerfully behind the choir. What a challenge it would be to paint the rich wood and the brass pipes, he thought to himself. In that moment an idea was born and Howard knew what his next art project would be.

Springville’s Museum of Art now showcases Howard’s thirty one unique oil paintings of the iconic Tabernacle organ, on show for two more months. Howard’s paintings depict many different parts of the organ; from the stops and close ups of the pipes, all the way to the intricate top crowns.

Ashlee Whitaker, associate curator of exhibitions, collections and registrar at the Springville Museum of Art explains why Howard’s artwork is unique.

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“His paintings give us a view of the organ that we don’t always see,” Whitaker said. “We’re used to recognizing it from a distance; we don’t often get to study the detail.”

Howard got special permission from Mac Christensen, president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to take photographs of the various parts of the organ and study its details and shapes. His wife, Carolyn Howard, is a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and recognized the challenge it would be to capture the image of the organ.

“You look up close and there are probably twenty different colors in the gold, and there’s even more in the wood,” Carolyn Howard said. “The organ is a familiar image, but his paintings give us new insights.”

It’s not just the colors that are complex. There are more than 11,000 pipes and it takes extraordinary skill to play. Organists have played alongside the choir for more than 130 years, including the first organist for the choir, a 16 year old boy who continued to play the organ for more than 20 years.

After studying the lives of the musicians to become more familiar with the history of the organ, Howard realized that his project was meant to honor those “unsung heroes” of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the organists.

“This started out as an intriguing thing, really an adventure, and it evolved into something else,” Howard said. “These organists are really deserving of appreciation.”

Organists, former organists, families of the organ players, organ keepers and more met at a reception in the spring to celebrate the lives and dedication of the musicians who played the organ since the Choir’s beginnings.

Howard gave the paintings as gifts to the grateful families of the organists, to be placed in their homes after the exhibit is over.

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