Gilgal Garden is the legacy of Thomas Child’s desire to give physical form to his deep-felt beliefs. “If you want to be brought down to earth in your thinking and studying, try to make your thoughts express themselves with your hands,” Child wrote.
The garden contains twelve original sculptural arrangements and over 70 stones engraved with scriptures, poems, and philosophical texts. Each represents an idea that rang of truth to Child in his life-long spiritual quest. Together, the sculptures and stones create a landscape of meaning and a unique work of art.
Child shared Gilgal Garden with thousands of visitors during his lifetime. He hoped the garden would inspire viewers to ponder “the unsolved mysteries of life” and struggle to find their own answers. Child was aware that many people would find Gilgal Garden strange, but hoped they would accept its challenge. “You don’t have to agree with me,” he explained. “You may think I am a nut, but I hope I have aroused your thinking and curiosity.”
Child began work on Gilgal Garden in 1945, when he was 57 years old. By then, he had already led a successful career as a masonry contractor, married and raised a family, been a leader in community affairs, and served as a bishop of the LDS Tenth Ward for over 19 years. Child’s passion for his garden consumed much of his time and money until his death in 1963.
Turning Stones into Sculptures
Child went to incredible lengths to obtain huge stones weighing up to 62 tons for his sculptures. He had great respect for the natural beauty of his materials. He traveled the state, scouring mountainsides and streambeds for “a boulder in which I could put over the idea and tell the story and still have it a stone.” Child often hired large trucks and heavy equipment to extract the stones and bring them to his yard.
Child had a complete workshop in his yard, including special equipment for handling and cutting the stone. He proudly stated that only raw materials were brought into the yard and all finish work was done on the site.
One of the most important artistic innovations in Gilgal Garden was Child’s use of an oxyacetylene torch, like those used to cut steel, for cutting stone. The heat of the torch removed the waste rock and fused the surface of the remaining stone, giving it a polished sheen. Child’s son-in-law and assistant, Bryant Higgs, was a skilled welder and pioneered this sculpting method.
Higgs taught well-known Utah sculptor Maurice Brooks to sculpt with the torch. Following Child’s careful instructions, Brooks carved features on several of Child’s works, including The Sphinx, The Monument to the Trade, Daniel II, Malachi, and The Last Chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Gilgal Garden is the only identified “visionary art environment” in Utah. These works of art are typically fabricated from found materials by people without formal artistic training to express a personal moral or religious conviction. A few visionary art environments, like Watts Towers in Los Angeles and the Orange Show in Houston, have gained acclaim. Most are little known and many are in danger of being destroyed.
Preserving and Restoring Gilgal Garden
After Thomas Child’s death in 1963, Gilgal Garden passed into the hands of new private owners. Friends of Gilgal Garden (FOGG) was organized in 1997 to prevent development on the site and insure its preservation for public enjoyment. Working closely with the Trust for Public Land and Salt Lake City Corporation, FOGG purchased Gilgal Garden in 2000 and the garden became a Salt Lake City park. The generous support of Salt Lake County, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation, The George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, and many private donors made the purchase possible.
FOGG now serves as the curator of Gilgal Garden and is responsible for conserving Gilgal’s art and enhancing the garden. Since 2000, FOGG has undertaken a variety of projects to stabilize and improve the garden, including creating a formal entrance, installing security fencing, constructing a 110-foot long retaining wall, restoring the bowery in the northeast corner of the garden, and creating an attractive new seating area.
FOGG has also worked to restore the garden’s sculptures and engraved stones. Over the years, weather, unchecked plant growth, and vandalism have damaged most of the art in the garden. Based on the recommendations of professional conservators, FOGG has employed expert craftspeople to gently repair the stones and replace missing elements of the art. By addressing the needs of the garden now, we can prevent further damage and the irreparable loss of Gilgal’s artistic treasures.
Making the Garden Bloom
Thomas Child employed several gardeners to maintain the lovely plantings in Gilgal Garden. After his death, the garden became increasingly overgrown and unkempt. In 2001, the Salt Lake County Master Gardener Association adopted Gilgal Garden as one of its community projects. Since then, Master Gardener members have donated thousands of hours of labor clearing out overgrown areas, tilling in new mulch, and planting new flowers and shrubs.
In 2013, the Salt Lake City Council approved funding to replace the garden’s very old irrigation system. The new system provides a much more predictable and sustainable way of caring for the plants, shrubs, and trees in the garden. The Salt Lake Master Gardener Association has redesigned the plantings to be more water-wise and to bloom three seasons of the year. The plantings will even have interest even in the winter.
The work of the Master Gardeners has helped restore the garden’s original atmosphere, enhanced visitors’ ability to view the art, and created a beautiful oasis in the heart of Salt Lake City. Friends of Gilgal Garden sincerely thanks the Salt Lake County Master Gardeners Association for its invaluable work and dedication to preserving the beauty of Gilgal Garden.
When Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson officially opened Gilgal Garden to the public in October 2000, he described it as “an absolute jewel.” We invite you to use this guide to explore Gilgal Garden, ponder its mysteries, and find your own treasures.
For more formation about the Master Gardener program, visit: www.slmg.org