Gilgal Sculpture Garden: Providing refuge from the commotion

Aug 18, 2023, 12:00 PM | Updated: 2:16 pm

 SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a space in Salt Lake City surrounded by larger-than-life sculptures, providing refuge from the hustle and bustle of its surroundings. The Gilgal Sculpture Garden dates to 1945 and was sculpted by the stonemason Thomas Child.

The sculpture garden features 12 stone sculptures and over 70 engraved stones. The Friends of Gilgal preserves the garden, and they say the word Gilgal is a biblical term and refers to a circle of sacred stones retrieved from the Jordan River to memorialize a miraculous crossing. Child was a bishop with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over 19 years. The sculpture garden reflects his religious beliefs.  

According to Judi Short, the president of the Friends of Gilgal, all the pieces were sculpted on sight in his workshop. The stones, some weighing 62 tons, came from different parts of Utah.

“He’d been plotting for years to build this park. All the rocks in the sculptures that you see, he found in Utah,” Short said. “So, he’d been looking for a long time for certain rocks for this or that.” 

Every Sunday, Child would invite neighbors and friends to tour the garden and explain the meaning behind each piece. While it’s true that many of the sculptures are related to his faith, the garden hosts other sources of inspiration as well.

Gilgal Sculpture Garden, an invitation to “think deeply”

Child wanted visitors to think deeply about his work saying, “you don’t have to agree with me. You may think I’m a nut, but I hope I have aroused your thinking and curiosity.” 

“It’s not just Mormon sayings on here,” said Short. “It’s things just out of the dictionary, or things he thought about.

“The back here is a big brass plaque and a list of names like Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. And we think that’s probably because that was his heritage, his relatives from England that came over here. So there’s just a whole lot of different things to look at and think about.” 

Child had help completing his more unique and recognizable pieces. The Sphynx, which is sculpted with Joseph Smith’s face, was created with a unique process.

“He used a polyacetylene torch,” said Short. “So he was working with rock, but he didn’t know how to be a sculptor. So he hired the best sculptor in town and taught him how to use the acetylene torch.

“That’s why Joseph Smith has a smooth face, smooth and shiny. And you’ll see other things that have been used with that like … a green grasshopper. The grasshopper is about 14 inches long. That green stone came from someplace in Utah, but it was carved by the acetylene torch.” 

A ‘visionary art environment’

Gilgal has received the distinction of being listed as a visionary art environment. The only one in the state and part of the handful in the country. According to the Friends of Gilgal, a visionary art environment expresses a personal or religious conviction with found materials by a person who is not a formally trained artist.  

It’s one of maybe a dozen pieces like this in the country, or maybe even the whole world. It’s something so different. When you come here, you will never see anything like it ever again. And we want to keep it that way.” 

Some parts of the sculpture garden are unfinished, and Short says they will not be completed.  

Rallying to save the Gilgal Sculpture Garden

After Child’s death, his wife Bertha Child sold the property to her neighbors. And as time moved on Gilgal stayed put, slowly sinking into the surrounding shrubbery. 

“Basically, nothing happened,” said Short. “Except for the weeds grew and the trees cast seeds, and the whole thing became kind of overgrown. And it was a secret garden because it was in somebody’s backyard, there was no official gate to it.” 

Gilgal almost never made it out of the overgrowth. In 1998 the community had to rally around their hidden gem to save it.  

“A developer approached the Fetzers,” Short said, “and wanted to buy the land for apartments. The neighborhood said ‘no, you’re not doing that, this place is way too special.’

“So, the neighborhood started raising money. And they ended up raising about $650,000, which back in 1998 was a lot of money. It’s still a lot of money. So, the LDS Church, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, and people like you and I, contributed money to save this garden.” 

In response, the Friends of Gilgal was formed in 1997 to help preserve the garden. They maintain the flower garden and trim overhanging branches. And they find professionals to restore the stonework as needed. 

Opening Gilgal to the public

It took some work before the park was opened to the public in October 2000. The Friends of Gilgal designed a fence that both deters vandals and allows trucks to deliver materials to help restore Child’s work.  

The Friends of Gilgal are still maintaining the park. But, restoring the stones to their former glory can be time-consuming and costly. 

“Well, it took three years to find the rock that was approximately the same as the rock that’s there. And you can see just looking at it, it’s still not quite the right color. We have the same company that is restoring the temple. So, they have good credentials and they’re not cheap.” 

Short is in charge of the master gardener program that helps maintain the flower beds in the garden. She says there are opportunities for people to help if interested. 

Keeping Gilgal open

Members of the Friends of Gilgal are determined to keep the garden gates open. They have been working on a conservation easement with the city to preserve Child’s legacy and Salt Lake City’s hidden gem for generations to come. 

 “(That) would mean that the garden has to stay the way it is. All the statues and everything would have to remain in their historic place, in their historic condition,” Short said. “So, Salt Lake City (is the owner) now. If they decided to sell it, whoever buys it would still have to keep it as Gilgal Park, they couldn’t put houses here.” 

Short says picking up the garden and moving to a new location isn’t possible. She believes that the garden has already carved out a place for itself in the community and is right where it belongs.   

“We need to preserve the history. We need to preserve the character of the city,” Short says. And, she says, “We don’t want everything to be a three-over-five-apartment building like they have on 400 South where everything looks the same, we still want this to be a place, and this is about placemaking.” 

More Unforgettable Utah: A look at Provo Castle Amphitheater’s storied history

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Gilgal Sculpture Garden: Providing refuge from the commotion