About 15 years ago, after devoting much of her life to vocal training and public performance as an operatic soprano, Angela Johnson arrived at a life-changing realization. “I went to the piano to begin another day of vocalization,” Johnson said. And right then and there, she realized that her operatic singing was finished. She hadn’t yet achieved her dream of singing with the Metropolitan Opera, and was suddenly and quietly certain that she wasn’t ever going to.
What happened next was the first step on a remarkable journey that led to the creation of the newest addition to the expansive gardens at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, an array of sculptures depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ that will be formally unveiled at a private event on Oct. 15. Johnson closed the lid of her piano, walked out of the house and went to an art store to purchase clay.
“Four hours later,” she said, “there was a portrait bust of a little girl sitting on my kitchen table.”
Just like that, Johnson, 54, took her artistic talents in an entirely different direction. She’d never taken any classes or done any training in sculpture before getting started, and she remains entirely self-taught. “I started to sculpt one piece after another,” she said, and a prodigious natural talent was revealed.
Now, Johnson, a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has a new home for some of her most impressive work, and a new outlet for her deeply rooted testimony of Jesus Christ. The Light of the World Garden at Thanksgiving Point will permanently feature 15 of her faith-inspired bronze-cast sculptures.
Karen Ashton, co-founder of Thanksgiving Point with her husband, Alan, said in a news release that the new themed garden is an ideal reflection of the nonprofit cultural and educational haven’s underlying purpose.
“From the beginning, Thanksgiving Point was to be an expression of gratitude to the Almighty and to the people of our community,” Ashton said. “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.”
A special calling
The Light of the World Garden is a long-held dream for Johnson, a full-time sculptor and mother of four (and grandmother of 13) who lives in Draper. She first envisioned the garden eight years ago after a period of feeling that her newfound gift had a special purpose. “It was as though God had told me to develop a talent I hadn’t known I had,” she said.
After determining that God had helped her become a sculptor for a special reason, Johnson took a simple and direct approach to deciding what she should do next. “I made it a matter of prayer,” she said. “I said, ‘I know that this is from you. What do you want me to do with it?’
“That was when the concept of a sculpture garden came to me.”
The next morning, Johnson said, she began the paperwork to create a nonprofit foundation that could eventually help the garden become a reality. She also started working on the pieces that would eventually belong to the garden.
For her first piece, Johnson created a large-scale depiction of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, as described in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. The waves beneath Jesus’s feet in the completed sculpture cover an area of about 16 square feet, she said, while Jesus himself is nearly 8 feet tall.
It took Johnson a year to sculpt the piece, and it took another year to cast it in bronze at a foundry in Alpine. The completed piece weighs more than three tons.
Eileen Ragsdale, a friend who belongs to the same LDS ward, or congregation, as Johnson, said that the size of Johnson’s sculptures is only part of what makes them so astonishing. The powerfully lifelike appearance of the work, Ragsdale said, is equally impressive. “When I look at Christ’s face,” she said, “it just gives me goosebumps.”
The sculptures that visitors will see at Thanksgiving Point aren’t all on a literally larger-than-life scale, or at least not yet. There are two other massive sculptures so far: One depicts Jesus carrying his cross on the day of his crucifixion, while the other is a more metaphorical representation that shows Christ tending chickens (a reference to Matthew 23:37).
The ideal setting
The rest of the pieces in the Light of the World Garden will eventually be done on the same massive scale. For now, maquettes, or small-scale models, will serve as placeholders for 11 other pieces, 10 of them scenes from Jesus’s mortal ministry and the other a depiction of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. (A 15th piece, depicting Jesus appearing to Mary at the garden tomb, is still in the planning stage.)
Before finding a permanent home at Thanksgiving Point, the large-scale sculptures and maquettes were featured in a touring exhibition for nearly five years. Johnson said that she first met Ashton when she was invited to be a guest artist at a women’s retreat Ashton had organized.
The two of them began discussing Johnson’s vision of a sculpture garden, and soon realized exactly where it should be. “I’m thrilled,” Johnson said of the arrangement. “Thanksgiving Point is spectacular. Everything they do is first-rate. The magnificent natural setting couldn’t be better.”
Leonard Grassli, who designed Thanksgiving Point Gardens and created the plan for the Light of the World Garden as well, said that he took a minimalist approach. “We used very simple lawns and a few plants,” he said. “The emphasis should be on the sculptures, not on the landscaping.”
Grassli said that he also tried to evoke the Holy Land with his design, choosing plants similar to those that grow wild in Israel, and using sandstone to create a base for each sculpture, and to line the paths between them.
Part of the reason to open the garden now, Johnson said, is to share her vision with as many people as possible, the better to raise funds to complete it. Her I Am the Light of the World Foundation (online at www.givetothelightoftheworld.org), has a daunting task ahead of it: The sculpture of Jesus walking on water cost about $350,000, and there are 12 large-scale sculptures still to go.
Johnson is confident the foundation will eventually get the money it needs. She’s seen miracles already. Having the garden well on its path to completion, she said, “fills me with awe and amazement at the power of God. I have seen his hand move in my life.”