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Hans Koepsell, Deseret News
Artist Salvador Alvarez sits for a portrait with his painting "Joy in the Journey" in his studio in Provo, Friday, July 22, 2016.

Salvador Alvarez started painting portraits of his classmates in first grade.

“Everybody traded them around until they got the best image of what they looked like,” he said in an interview at his Provo studio. “But they were sincere efforts at portraiture.”

Almost six decades later, Alvarez is still painting — portraits, landscapes and flowers and a happy pioneer image that caught the attention of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I paint because I want to create some beauty that I leave behind so people know I did the best I could,” Alvarez said in an interview with the Deseret News.

Alvarez’s painting “Joy in the Journey” was shown during President Uchtdorf’s talk at the October 2015 women’s session titled "A Summer With Great-Aunt Rose." The colorful painting features a pioneer girl skipping down a path and is part of Alvarez’s “Joy in the Journey” collection.

President Uchtdorf’s talk was a parable about an 11-year-old girl named Ava who spends a summer with her Great-Aunt Rose and learns to find joy in life. In the story, the painting has significance for Rose, who seems to use it to renew her faith, Alvarez said.

The talk was recently featured in a book titled “A Summer With Great-Aunt Rose” (Deseret Book, $15.99). Alvarez illustrated about a dozen images for the book, including one of Rose’s “stalker cat.” Alvarez said he loves cats, but his wife kept encouraging him to make it look more sinister.

“And I was like, 'No, I want to give the cat a fair chance!'” he said.

Beliefs and happy pioneer paintings

A self-proclaimed “Jack Catholic,” Alvarez said he has a very strong belief in God.

During challenging times in his life, he turned to God in prayer asking for help. Looking back, though, he said, “I realized, holy smokes, if I hadn’t gone through what I was put through at that time, I wouldn’t have been where I am now. There really is something about in hindsight looking at something that you thought was a curse and realizing that you were stronger for having gone through it.”

Alvarez' wife, Pamela, and three children are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The inspiration for the collection came after attending “Mormon parties” where he noticed that “Mormons are always so happy.”

Yet, he said, all the pioneer paintings he has seen celebrate the suffering the pioneers endured. He said the pioneers were still people who liked to laugh, liked pretty material and liked music — just like today.

“They must have been happy,” he said. “I’m sure they suffered enough. They had hardships like we don’t understand. Certainly, they were happy people, too.”

So Alvarez set out to make happy pioneer paintings.

“I knew I had something that was different and that was they were happy paintings," Alvarez said of his reaction to the first two images. "They made you smile.”

Alvarez said he wants his paintings to be beautiful to people.

“I want them to make the person feel better,” he said. “I pour so much love into my artwork. I want the person to feel love in some sense.”

Finding 'Joy in the Journey'

Looking back at the experience leading to his painting being featured in the conference talk, Alvarez noticed many “coincidences.”

One coincidence came when Alvarez's had a booth at the Christkindlmarkt at This Is the Place Heritage Park. President Uchtdorf visited Alvarez’s booth at the show, and Alvarez said the apostle appeared interested in the images, particularly the skipping pioneer girl.

Then, three weeks before the October general conference, Alvarez received an email from the church asking permission to use the painting.

“My wife starts doing jumping jacks,” he recounted with a laugh. “I said, 'Calm down — for all you know they could be using it for coasters, so don’t give yourself a heart attack.'”

The couple wasn’t sure how or even if the painting would be used, but after it was used they were completely unprepared for the response, Alvarez said. They started a website to meet the demand for images.

Also, Alvarez has been receiving many heartfelt emails from individuals who have been impacted by the image, including some who have written from their deathbeds, others who are enduring chemotherapy and some who are recovering alcoholics.

“It renewed their faith, their hope,” he said. “They can read the story, they can look at the image and life has purpose again.”

Portraits and painting faces

After graduating from the New York Academy of Art with a master’s degree, Alvarez and his family moved to Hawaii where he painted portraits for tourists. After 22 years, he was “so sick of looking at faces,” so when his family moved to Utah, he switched to landscapes.

But then he started the pioneer painting collection, which “reactivated (his) love of portraiture.”

However, his most well-known image, "Joy in the Journey," he said, does not have a portrait.

“People identify with this painting because you don’t see a face. So you can put yourself there,” he said.

He said there is a sense in the painting that the girl is "moving forward at a clip."

"Though the path is not completely straight, you can tell that she has a direct line on where she’s going," he said. "She has purpose … She looks like she knows where she wants to go and she’s going to get there.

“I have a very, very strong belief that there’s a purpose to life. We’re here for a reason.”

He also said he believes that individuals are supposed to excel at something. For him, it’s painting.

“I think there comes a time in everybody’s life where you’ve got to question whether you used what you were given or whether you wasted your life,” he said.

Alvarez said he feels like he’s down to his five-second shot clock in life, and he’s going to take his shot.

“I’m going to be coming out with some beautiful pieces,” he said.

Alvarez is currently producing more pioneer paintings and working on paintings for a variety of other collections. Some of his work can be viewed at the HERE gallery in downtown Provo or on his website salvadoralvarez.com.