LEHI — Angela Johnson doesn't try to explain it. She just wholly believes that she's getting some divine help as she creates a sculpture garden — the Light of the World Garden at Thanksgiving Point — based on the life of Jesus Christ.
Dedicated to becoming an opera singer, she never planned or trained to be an artist. But she is.
"I hadn't reached my goal in the opera world, so I prayed about what I should do with my life," Johnson said. "I went to the store and bought a block of clay and started to work it. Four hours later, I had this bust of a little girl. It was now time to leverage a talent I didn't know I had."
Since that day, she's taught herself to sculpt, working long hours and dreaming nightly about what she wanted to create.
"Somedays I'd get up and cut off heads, smash things with a hammer and start over," she said, "all the while trying to listen to the Spirit for direction."
In Thanksgiving Point garden, she has created 15 pieces that not only tell stories about Jesus Christ's life on earth and in heaven, they evoke emotion in the people who see them.
"The very first piece was this walking on water piece," she said, motioning to "It Is I, Be Not Afraid," a $300,000 piece that took more than $22,000 worth of clay and required that she get right into the clay to mold and sculpt the high waves. "I knew if I was going to accomplish this goal I would have to walk in deep water. I would need faith."
She marked off the dimensions on her studio floor and divided the work into sections. The result is a huge piece that supports Christ as he walks across the tumultuous water. Ultimately it took more than 200 panels to mold and reform the piece in bronze.
She took care to make sure the texture and patina reflected the mood of the water and its beauty.
"I had to learn about faith and trust and hard work," Johnson said. "That's the fun part."
Johnson claims she's had no formal art training, but believes the rigors of training to sing an aria helped her focus as an artist and achieve her goals.
"I had no tutor. I was very much Spirit-taught, Spirit-guided," she said.
"I'm amazed at the dynamic relationship between me and the divine," she said. "This is a tangible witness of my testimony. What a unique thing to put your testimony in bronze."
"It's an absolute joy to look at these and realize I made them. But even more than it's mine, it's about Christ," she said. "The whole concept is bigger than me."
Her work was already on display around the world in visitors' centers as a traveling exhibit for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before she met the founder of Thanksgiving Point and started discussing putting the pieces on permanent display in the Prairie Grass Garden.
Johnson believes the garden makes a perfect backdrop for her work and is excited to see all of the sculptures installed. Three monumental-scaled pieces are finished while a dozen others are in progress or on display in miniature, waiting for enough donation money to come together to pay for completion of life-size versions.
The three life-size sculptures are "It is I, Be Not Afraid," "His Gatherer," of Christ gathering baby chicks, and "Because of Love," with the savior carrying his heavy cross to his crucifixion.
The maquette-size smaller pieces depict the First Vision to the Prophet Joseph Smith with Jesus Christ and the Father standing in the air above the boy; Christ in Gethsemane; the Raising of Lazarus; Mary and Martha hosting Christ for a meal; the woman touching his robes for a blessing; Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection; Christ beseeching his Father for strength; and Christ teaching the woman at the well and healing the blind man.
In each piece, there is detail and beauty in the facial expressions, the clothing, the hands and feet. The wooden cross is realistically etched. The baby chicks have feathers. Christ's leather sandals are based on meticulous research. Thorns were place one by one on the crown of thorns.
"I tried to capture the majesty of Christ's sacrifice and the bearing of our pain," Johnson said. "I wanted the focus to be on his love and sacrifice rather than on the brutality.
"This is definitely an endeavor of love and the passion I feel for promoting Christ. In every way possible, I tried to draw people in, get them emotionally involved."
"I was a guest artist in 2007 at Karen Ashton's cabin. She saw the PowerPoint demonstration of my work and the dialogue started," Johnson said.
“From the beginning, Thanksgiving Point was to be an expression of gratitude to the Almighty and to the people of our community,” said Ashton. “This project is a perfect continuation of that expression. These sculptures will enrich our gardens and be an invitation to people of faith from all over the world. We’re thrilled to be a part of it.”
In addition to the monumental sculptures, the master plan created by Leonard Grassli, designer of the Thanksgiving Point Gardens, will be unveiled as well at a ceremony on Oct. 15.
If you go:
What: The unveiling of The Light of the World Garden
When: Saturday, Oct. 15, 1 p.m.
Where: Thanksgiving Point Discovery Gardens, Lehi
Cost: Regular admission prices
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 30 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.