In Missouri in 1862, 14-year-old Mary Wanlass promised her dying step-mother that she would see to it that her disabled father, her four-year-old twin brothers, her six-year-old sister, and her nine-year-old brother all made it to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Having already missed the Mormon wagon trains that had traveled west in the migration that began in 1846, the Wanlass family joined a pioneer company traveling the Oregon Trail. However, they soon had to drop out of the wagon train because care required by Mary's father, who had suffered a debilitating stroke, made it impossible for the family to keep up.
Mary drove the oxen and milk cows that pulled the wagon, in which her father traveled in the bed. She cared for her four siblings. After each day's journey, she fed the family by foraging for edible plants, flowers, and berries. Her only compass was the instruction she had received to keep traveling west "until the clouds become mountains."
They reached Utah Valley in September, having traveled all spring and summer. Her father died not long after the family settled in Utah County, where Mary later married and raised her family. She died there in 1907.
While no historical documentation is yet known to connect Mary Wanlass with the history of the Provo Tabernacle, researchers think it likely that she attended conferences there, such as the General Conference of the Church convened in the Tabernacle in 1898.
Some of Elspeth's research notes in preparation for this painting project include costume and compositional studies, flora and fauna native to stretches of the Oregon Trail, and possible color schemes for the painting.
Insights into the Painting
In Carry On, the wind-blown figure of Mary Wanlass is presented under the expansiveness of a western sky. On the hazy rim of the plains behind her and under the mountain clouds, the purple shoulders of the mountains toward which she and her family have been traveling are just discernible. She is completely alone. She is foraging to feed her family. Having traveled so far for so long, if ever she had stores of food, they are gone. Her daily bread is what she can find after the long day's journey.
Such are the circumstances of all who live by faith upon the outstretched hand of God's unfailing beneficence. Exposed to the forces in nature, they must trust in Nature's God.
Many have observed that most of the flowers and much of the beauty in this world go unnoticed because they exist far from cities and other places frequented by travelers. But that is one way in which the earth itself whispers to us about that God who made it, and who made us all; that wherever His children may wander or stumble or fall in this world, He really is present, anxious and ready to bless and sustain and heal each of us—one by one.
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