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May 21, 2012
Moments in Art
Arnold Friberg and the Occupational Therapist
by Lawrence Jeppson

The late Arnold Friberg (1913-2010) is best known to Latter-day Saints as the artist who created a dozen oil paintings illustrating events in The Book of Mormon. These illustrations were used in hundreds of thousands of copies that were printed in various languages.

These paintings were commissioned and personally paid for by Adele Cannon Howells, who wanted illustrative materials for teaching Primary children. The originals now hang in a dedicated gallery in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.

Friberg is even better known in Canada, where he is revered as a depicter of the life and lore of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. A commercial artist in Chicago, Friberg was commissioned to do his first Mountie painting by the Northwest Paper Company in 1937.

Northwest built its advertising around a RCMP theme and used new paintings every year for its calenders and other promotions. Eventually Friberg would produce 208 Mountie paintings for the client, as well as other Mountie paintings and drawings he kept for himself. Calenders and other reproductions of Friberg's paintings hung everywhere, and Friberg became an honorary member of the RCMP.

Friberg became Cecil B. DeMille's artistic director in the production of The Ten Commandments. Friberg painted important scenes in the story, and these depictions became the visual anchors around which DeMille built the movie. DeMille published a book depicting these paintings and Arnold's portraits of the lead characters in costume; a million copies of this were sold at premieres around the world.

If Arnold Friberg had been Japanese and lived in Japan he would have been considered a National Treasure, officially designated by the government and revered by the populace. If he had been French he would have been made a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters. Even though Friberg was neither Japanese nor French, he enjoyed a wide international popularity. His art and illustrations have been admired by people living in scores of countries and speaking many languages.

Besides painting The Book of Mormon subjects, the nearly 300 Mountie renderings, and the Ten Commandments art, the other objects of Friberg's art have been many and varied, ranging from calm, pious religious scenes such at the Nativity, to ferocious Indian attacks on a railroad train, to panoramas of forest-fire fighters, to depictions of the Four Freedoms of World War II, to football heros. He painted Queen Elizabeth and her horse from life and a praying George Washington with his horse at Valley Forge from heart. This Prayer at Valley Forge is one of America's greatest icons.

Arnold Friberg and his most famous painting, Prayer at Valley Forge

Friberg was productive until the day he died. But when he was in his nineties he suffered a stroke a was hospitalized. Because of his age he was not quickly discharged.

One day an occupational therapist arrived at his bedside to hasten his recovery. Friberg, who had a loud and resonant voice, stared at the materials she offered him, then looked back at her.

"Do you know who I am?" he asked.

"No, sir," she replied.

"I'm Arnold Friberg. And you bring me FINGER PAINTS!"

According to Friberg, the occupational therapist beat a hasty retreat. The next day she reappeared, but this time she upgraded the therapy to a few basic watercolors.

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