1 of 2
Laurie Williams Sowby
Artist J. Kirk Richards stands next to his 2008 self-portrait.

PROVO — J. Kirk Richards had just performed as a soloist with the Utah Valley Symphony when he announced to his parents that he was through with the French horn and intended to pursue a career in art. He was 15 and one of eight musically accomplished children of Claude and Cynthia Richards.

"My parents were very wise," he recalls. They suggested he continue with music for one more year, and then if he decided to stop taking music lessons, he could. So he gave it another year, then dropped the horn lessons and started studying art privately with Clayton Williams during his junior and senior years as a Provo High student.

Sitting back in his chair in the home he grew up in on Briar Avenue — now occupied by him, his wife, Amy, and three young children, along with rooms filled with paint and paintings — Richards relates how BYU's Harris Fine Arts Center was actually his first exposure to art as he passed through the galleries on his way to music lessons during elementary school.

"Those artists became my heroes — Bruce Smith, Wulf Barsch, James Christensen," he says.

As a freshman at BYU, he was not an art major but signed up for a figure drawing class with Hagen Haltern. He felt impressed to pursue it as a career.

He at first was disappointed when a mission call came for the Italy Rome Mission, but "within an hour of receiving that call, I knew it was the perfect place for me." In fact, during the two times when Richards was living in the Rome area as a missionary, he was able to visit the Vatican Museums on two occasions and to absorb the city's colors, textures and architecture every day.

Those muted rusts and browns, the varied textures, and elements of the great works of art he saw are reflected in his paintings which are hanging in the Springville Museum's Music Gallery through Oct. 15.

"Italians have a history of painting the human figure," he explains, "even up to today. That's something I love about Italian art and tradition. But a lot of my influence comes from European artists in general. A whole group of artists with classical training went and did expressionist things with that training," he says, naming Klimt, Bastien-Lepage and Dagnan Bouveret. He continues, "I love the combination of abstract with those focal points that are perfectly rendered."

An example is a recent self-portrait of the 32-year-old artist, where the right eye is done in great detail and the rest of the painting is loose. That small painting is juxtaposed in the Springville exhibit with a self-portrait he did as a young student.

Most of the 15 paintings are large, and all of the subjects spiritual, even if they are not overtly religious. Among them are a portrait of Christ; five paintings with Christ figures; a rendering of the four musical Shill sisters of Pleasant Grove; a gold-leafed "Song of the Heart" which reflects his feelings about music as prayer; and "Hosannah Shout," where closer inspection of the girl's dress reveals scenes of the First Vision and pioneers with handcarts and covered wagons.

"His religious work is so powerful," said museum director Vern Swanson. "Because he is so good and he has so much to say, we had to have a show."

He expects Richards to hit his stride in a couple of years, although "he's ahead of the curve."

"It's a rare thing to be able to succeed with expressive rather than illustrative art" as an LDS artist, Swanson added. "He'll be making a name for himself."

In addition to creating the paintings, Richards crafts his own frames, often curved at the top and with rounded edges. Four sketches in the exhibit also give a glimpse into the artist's process.

"A lot of it comes out of my head," he explains, "some without any reference at all." If he uses a photograph, it's only to "take little bits of information from it, such as how the light hits."

Richards has created most of the works in his home, whose rooms double as a studio and gallery. Even the garage has been commandeered as a workshop and studio for "Petition of the Blind," a tall, wide biblical scene which he plans to enter in the next LDS Church art competition.

The Springville exhibit includes a 16-foot-wide depiction of Christ feeding the 5,000, called "Loaves and Fishes," and an 18-foot-wide work, "Every Knee Shall Bow," which Richards describes as "a sea of kneeling people in the foreground and a Christ figure in the background."

Richards' paintings that exceed the size of the old home's walls are created in a newly refurbished salt packaging facility in rural Redmond, Sevier County. "Every Knee" was moved out just before the exhibit's opening. An 11 1/2-foot-tall angel still waits in Redmond as a work in progress.

It is among about 35 paintings that Richards is working on simultaneously. "One that goes smoothly takes about eight months from start to finish," he says. And regardless of what media he starts with, "everything is finished off in oil."

The inspirational subjects are "images that I respond to," says Richards. "It's always a little disappointing to me that a person can't do religious art today and have it recognized as valid" — a far cry from much of the old Italian art he was exposed to as an LDS missionary in Rome.

The Museum of Church History and Art owns his "Son of Man" from a previous competition. Another award winner, "The Baptism of Christ," is in a private collection. Two large paintings displayed in BYU's 2007 "Beholding Salvation" exhibit ("Gethsemane" and a different "Baptism of Christ") are privately owned. The September 2008 Ensign features Richards' "Laborers in the Vineyard," a work using contrasting light and dark (called chiaroscuro in Italian).

The Springville Museum of Art has two of Richards' works in its permanent collection, one depicting Christ raising the daughter of Jairus and the other the large-scale "Keepers of the Gate," which Swanson calls "one of the masterpieces in our collection."

The Brownstone Gallery in Provo and Authentique Gallery in St. George regularly show pieces by Richards. He is looking forward to displaying more new works at a major solo exhibition at Dixie State College in 2010.

More about the artist and his work can be found at www.art.jkirkrichards.com.