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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
People tour the new Light of the World Garden at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016.

THANKSGIVING POINT, Utah County — After 13 years of toiling, planning and generous support, a dream to create a scenic garden of religious-themed sculptures was realized Saturday.

More than 350 people packed into a room at the Ashton Gardens to celebrate the grand opening of the Light of the World Garden, a 2.5-acre space featuring 35 bronze, monument-size statues organized into 15 scenes — 14 depicting Jesus Christ in the New Testament and one of Joseph Smith's First Vision — created by Utah artist Angela Johnson.

"This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when two very determined, visionary women talk," said master of ceremonies Ryan Larsen, referring to when Johnson shared her idea with Karen Ashton, founder of Thanksgiving Point Institute, in 2008.

The Light of the World Garden, made possible by private donations in the range of $4 million to $5 million, is intended to offer visitors a quiet, serene place to ponder and reflect on the life, teachings and miracles of Jesus Christ, Johnson said.

"Every scene is an aspect of my testimony. It's an endeavor of love," Johnson said. "There are no scripted or guided tours, it's between the person, the statues and the feelings that arise in their heart."

A small group of speakers associated with Thanksgiving Point and the project, along with those who contributed financial support, each gave brief remarks. The vocal talents of Gentri, a trio of male singers, was also on display. Johnson then shared her feelings through song and poetry before Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke and offered a short dedicatory prayer.

"It is truly, truly spectacular to me," Elder Holland said of the art garden. "This particular space has become one of the special attractions, not simply of Thanksgiving Point, but of the region, the state and this part of the nation, as far as I'm concerned. … It's appropriate that it be located here, at the foot of these majestic mountains, midway between two valleys, connected by the River Jordan. That river, flowing by us, with Mount Nebo in one direction and Ensign Peak in another, should make these biblical subjects portrayed feel very much at home."

Elder Holland said the best part about the statuary, the gardens, spirit and setting "is that they will significantly add to the faith of all who come to visit these grounds."

"We need religious faith as much or more now than any time in the history of the world," Elder Holland said. "I believe visitors will come by the thousands and tens of thousands, grateful for a setting in which they can reflect and contemplate, a place to meditate and yes, a place to pray. We don't have a lot of those kinds of places publicly in our busy, noisy, 21st century lives. … This garden will be a spiritual oasis and a welcome retreat."

Johnson's career as a sculptor and later her vision of the garden came about in a unique way. After vigorously pursuing a dream to become a prima donna of the Metropolitan Opera for many years, Johnson realized with finality in 1997 that it would never happen. Instead, she felt inspired to go to an art supply store, where she bought a block of water-based clay and a sculpting tool. Within hours she had created a bust of a little girl. Thus began her journey as a sculptor, she said.

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About five years and several commissioned sculptures later, she had a yearning to know what God wanted her to do with her newly discovered talent. That's when she felt guided to begin crafting sculptures depicting the teachings and miracles of Jesus with the idea that they would one day grace a garden. She began to work and few years later, crossed paths with Karen Ashton, who shared Johnson's passion for the idea and opened the doors to transform the idea into what it is today.

The Light of the World Garden is open to all visitors and faiths. For more on Johnson's biblical scenes in bronze and how to visit the gardens, visit lightoftheworldgarden.com or thanksgivingpoint.org.

Email: ttoone@deseretnews.com, Twitter: tbtoone