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At an age when most people are hardly working, 92-year-old Arnold Friberg is working hard - too hard to talk about his pilgrimage to Valley Forge for his epic portrait of a praying George Washington or his quibbles with LDS leaders over how to depict Book of Mormon prophets or the impromptu camera tip he got from a posing Queen Elizabeth.
And the legendary Utah artist certainly is too busy - prepping for a recently opened exhibit of his Oscar-nominated work on Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" - to entertain thoughts about his legacy.
But, after much prodding, he acquiesces, though not for long. After all, he still labors seven hours a day - between breakfast and dinner, with no breaks.
"People see the glamour but, oh, do I have to work hard," the 6-foot-2 Friberg says en route to the studio behind the home he and wife Heidi share with their chocolate Lab, Duke, on the Salt Lake Valley's east bench. "I'm just a working stiff, not a promoter."
Doesn't matter. His paintings and illustrations over eight decades command attention.
Friberg's 1975 tour de force of the father of our country pleading for divine guidance alongside his horse at Valley Forge is the nation's top-selling print. His princely portraits of the British royal family remain a singular honor for an American artist. And his Old West paintings are newfound nuggets for Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, casino magnate Stephen Wynn and other collectors.
Before his death, beloved illustrator Norman Rockwell called Friberg the "Phidias [Greek sculptor of the Parthenon] of religious art." Maryland art critic and appraiser Lawrence Jeppson writes, "If Arnold Friberg . . . lived in Japan, he would be considered a national treasure."
Alas, Friberg lives in Utah, where many artists survive and few thrive. So his pricier prints largely traffic online and out of state. But the point is: His works sell - still.
"My talent hasn't deteriorated. Some artists' stuff gets weak when they grow older," he says. "It's amazing where my talent has taken me. I mean, who am I? I'm just that kid down the street who likes to draw."
Raising Arizona: Arnold was 3 1/2 when his immigrant parents, Sven Peter and Ingeborg Friberg, moved their family from a Chicago suburb to Phoenix.
"We were poor but not destitute," Friberg recalls. "We didn't go hungry, but I guarantee you [that] every dime counted."
Friberg was drawn to art at an early age, caught up with the stories and illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post, Harper's and other magazines. He also took a shine to sports stars at Phoenix High.
"I was a skinny kid," he remembers. "I wasn't sickly or weak, but I envied the athletes with their big arms. I'm sort of a hero worshipper by nature."
That reverence later evolved into idealized portraits of muscular Mounties, studly steeds and prophets with pecs. Early on, the artist's work adorned his school's newspaper and yearbook. He also picked up pointers from cartoonists at The Arizona Republic and honed his craft for cash by hand-lettering signs and doing other odd jobs.
After high school, he studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art and then the Grand Central School of Art in New York. Friberg's work often popped up in periodicals, trade journals and calendars, but ended abruptly when Uncle Sam called.
"War is just a hideous damn thing," Friberg says of slogging through the mud as a soldier in Germany. "I was in the infantry, the lowest form of life in the armed services."
One city the 86th Infantry rolled through was Neu-Ulm, the Bavarian burg near the Danube River where Heidi Hiller lived.
"I went there with a rifle in my hand, and [Heidi] didn't even say hello," he jokes.
"I was much too young for GIs to waste chocolates on," fires back Heidi, 22 years her husband's junior.
The two actually met and married decades later in Utah after Friberg's first wife, Hedve, died in the mid-1980s.
After World War II, the painter plied his profession in San Francisco until landing a job in 1950 teaching commercial art at the University of Utah.
Book of Mormon stories: Friberg is best known in Utah for his paintings of Book of Mormon scenes, which have graced millions of volumes of the church's signature scripture.
Adele Cannon Howells, president of the LDS Church's Primary Association, commissioned him in 1950 for the job and paid him $1,000 apiece for the dozen pictures.
"Her last act on Earth, the night she died, she sold some property" to raise the money, Friberg says. "She never even saw the paintings."
The church did not put up any dollars for the artwork, but it put out plenty of directives. Some LDS leaders simply wanted portraits of 12 Book of Mormon figures giving speeches.
"That's not what the book is about," Friberg says. "It's about ocean voyages, battles, assassinations, as well as spiritual things."
Friberg, with the backing of Primary leaders, won out. His paintings show, among other scenes, a pious Lehi & Co. braving the sea en route to the New World, a hulking Helaman leading 2,000 young warriors into combat and a lonely Abinadi - shortly before being burned at the stake - courageously confronting a wicked king.
But LDS President David O. McKay, whom Friberg admires, was adamant Friberg not paint Christ in the series.
"I asked, 'Why not? That's the high point of the book,' " Friberg recalls. "Well, [McKay] planted his feet, looked heavenward and said, 'The finite cannot conceive of the infinite. The prophet has spoken. . . . Our artists are never to paint Christ.' "
Again, Friberg prevailed - sort of. One of his paintings depicts a risen Lord descending from the heavens in the ancient Americas. But the figure is so small, Friberg decided "no one would object."
On the other hand, the Book of Mormon prophets in Friberg's illustrations loom large - so large that Ogden Standard-Examiner cartoonist Calvin Grondahl lampooned that it takes "faith and steroids" to be a prophet.
That satirical swipe draws a chuckle from Friberg, but not the "Mormon artist" moniker some hang on him.
"He always says, 'I'm a Mormon, but I'm not a Mormon artist,' " Heidi says. "The Book of Mormon is a very small part of his life's work."
DeMille's disciple: DeMille's 1956 blockbuster "The Ten Commandments" gave Friberg a larger canvas and a wider audience.
Told by Swedish newspaper publisher Herman Stolpe about the Utah artist, the famed filmmaker was captivated by the Old Testament-style flair of Friberg's Mormon prints.
"He was the greatest man you can imagine," Friberg says of DeMille. "There wasn't a drop of phony in him. And he always did what he said he would."
Friberg sums up his idol with a sign that sits next to the movie's trademark stone tablets in his studio: "I believe in God and DeMille."
Friberg was part of an elite inner circle seated at the director's table during meals. He did oil paintings of scenes and stars that served as models for the movie. The paintings hung in what DeMille dubbed the "Friberg Room" and were displayed to millions internationally after the film's release.
Friberg was even drawn into costume design, earning him an Oscar nomination.
"Elizabeth Taylor read my name from the stage, and not every American boy can say that," Friberg says. "Nobody was really listening to Liz. They were wondering if she was going to stay in that dress. Every man in the audience was entertaining the same mad hope." Friberg and Yul Brynner, who played the bold and bald Ramses, became fast friends, but the artist drew the line at shaving off his hair.
"He wanted me to be like him," Friberg laughs.
In designing Charlton Heston's Moses robe, Friberg chose red with black and white stripes to better contrast with the Egyptians' light-colored garb. Later, researchers - boning up on the Bible for the movie - learned every tribe of Israel had its colors and that Levi's were red, white and black. Moses was of Levi.
"You might say that was miraculous, that it was divinely guided," Friberg says. "DeMille believed that."
DeMille visited the Fribergs in Utah twice before his death. And the artist received a letter from Heston a few months ago.
Football and Founding Father: Friberg's work - including his calendar illustrations of Canadian Mounties for the Northwest Paper Co. - attracted attention in 1968 from General Motors, which commissioned four paintings to celebrate the 100th anniversary of college football.
During the job, Friberg huddled with Bear Bryant and a young O.J. Simpson - "He was a very likable guy. Everyone said, 'Here's one young man we'll never have problems with' " - and flew to football's holiest shrine: Notre Dame, home of Touchdown Jesus, the Four Horsemen and Knute Rockne.
"I landed at the airport," Friberg recalls, "and, my golly, here's the school band and the priests. I thought, 'What a welcome.' "
Of course, the red-carpet treatment wasn't for him. "Another plane landed," he adds, "and it was Bobby Kennedy there to campaign" for president.
Once inside the Fighting Irish's hallowed locker room - alone with the ghosts of the Gipper and Notre Dame's gridiron past - Friberg struggled to conjure up exactly where Rockne may have stood to coach his players. He moved a blackboard near some lockers and started pacing. Suddenly, he felt rooted in place.
"I said, 'Who is doing the shoving around here? Is that you, Rock?' And I thought later that maybe it was. Who would be more interested?"
A former Notre Dame player later told the artist he had captured Rockne's precise place and pose.
For his Washington masterpiece, Friberg made minute drawings of the general's uniform at the Smithsonian and journeyed in the dead of winter to Valley Forge. There, on the banks of Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River, he removed his gloves and started sketching. The biting cold hindered his hands but enlightened his mind. Friberg now knew how Washington might have felt.
His moving portrait shows the general deep in prayer, head bowed, hands clasped, fingers interlocked. The strong vertical lines in the surrounding forest lend an almost cathedral-like spirituality.
"The hands are the whole picture," Friberg says. "Those are not the hands of a man in church. If you went to church in Washington's day, you prayed with the palms and fingers [of both hands] pressed together and pointing upward. The purpose of the painting is to show the burden that comes only to a leader."
The kneeling Washington now stands as Friberg's most famous painting. It is popular with presidents and patriots. Ronald Reagan had a print. So do President George W. Bush, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and scores of private collectors. The original has been appraised at $12 million.
Some admirers foresee Friberg's "Prayer at Valley Forge" supplanting Emmanuel Leutze's 1851 masterpiece "Washington Crossing the Delaware" in American hearts and over American hearths. More than 100,000 prints have sold.
Royal rendezvous: Horse sense in art is uncommon, and viewers of Friberg's horses sense the artist has it. That's why Canada hired him to paint Prince Charles (in 1978) and Queen Elizabeth (in 1990) with Centenial, a blue-blood thoroughbred the Canadian Mounties bequeathed England's royal family.
Both times, Friberg set up shop in Buckingham Palace. Charles and Friberg enjoyed a good relationship. The artist delights in recalling Charles' quip as he took the measure of the prince's head with a sculptor's calipers.
"Do you think they can see us?" the prince asked while perusing the people outside the window. "They'll think I'm being measured for the guillotine."
Upon hearing Friberg grew up in Arizona, Charles asked, "Is Arizona in Texas?"
"I said, 'Is Belgium in the U.S.S.R.?' "
As Charles posed next to Centenial, Friberg grew frustrated. No matter where the prince stood, he blocked part of the horse the artist had to see to sketch.
"I finally asked, 'Do you need to be in this thing?' Oh, we had a lot of fun. He had a great sense of humor. England is lucky to have him."
A dozen years later, this time with Heidi, it was Her Royal Highness' turn. The Fribergs had four sittings with the queen - some with and some without the horse.
While her majesty does, on occasion, consent to pose, she dislikes poseurs. Be yourselves, her executive secretary, Sir Robert Fellows, advised the Fribergs.
They were - and Elizabeth and Heidi hit it off, jabbering about Charles' recent polo injury and a nearby portrait by an English artist. The queen asked the Utah couple what they thought of it.
"Do you want me to be honest or diplomatic?" Heidi recalls asking. "She said, 'I want to know what you think.' I said, 'I'd fire the artist.' "
During the last sitting, on July 4, Friberg struggled to load film in his camera. Sensing his nervousness, the queen dismounted her horse to help.
There they were, a Utah artist drawn to portraits and a British monarch born to rule, standing cheek to cheek examining a camera.
" 'You see,' " Friberg remembers her saying, " 'you didn't engage the sprocket. Now it will work.' And she was right."
Just back from Canada, the queen later complained of jet lag, prompting Friberg to lodge his own gripe.
" 'You're making me work on our national holiday,' " he recounts. " 'I know what you're doing. You're getting even for Bunker Hill.' And she laughed."
When Fellows invited the Fribergs to her majesty's birthday bash, Arnold protested he didn't have anything to wear.
"Well, you don't have to go," Fellows told them. "But being invited to the queen's birthday is a pretty big thing."
The Fribergs went - Arnold in a borrowed top hat from an English lord and formal wear scrounged from the Canadian consul general, Heidi with a hat she bought at a discount store.
Painter's place: Well-versed as he is with his storied past, Friberg turns practically silent when asked how future generations will view his work. He prefers leaving "legacy" talk to art critics and highway planners. After all, he is not dead yet and has no plans to depart soon.
Heidi and his work keep him hale and happy. And his wife's son, Peter Dominy, runs Friberg Fine Arts in Murray and markets his stepfather's work over the Web. Business is brisk.
Never satisfied, Friberg still strives to improve. Gallery owners are more comfortable than he is touting his art. They see what's there; he sees how it could be better.
"I may have just about learned how to paint," he says.
Whatever Friberg's future, Salt Lake City gallery owner Clayton R. Williams says his place in the nation's pantheon of painters is secure.
"He's a very emotional person, and that strong personal emotion comes through in the figures he depicts," he says.
Art critic Jeppson and others want Friberg's masterpieces - including "Prayer at Valley Forge" - housed in a Friberg museum in Utah. His collection recently appraised for $31 million.
Robert Barrett, associate dean of Brigham Young University's College of Fine Arts and Communications, calls Friberg a master of contemporary Western realism and an important "bridge to the golden age of illustration."
For his part, Friberg sees no difference between artists and illustrators. Both tell stories.
"I'm a born storyteller, a painter of pictures. I don't care if I'm remembered. I want the work to be remembered."
Arnold Friberg's 50th-anniversary art exhibit of Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" runs through May 26 at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South, West Valley City. The exhibit is open weekdays from 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is $5; children 12 and under are free.