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Murals in Provo City Center Temple prove to be a sacred endeavor

By Kari Kenner - Daily Herald - | Jan 26, 2016
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Gary Smith, a mural artist for the Provo City Center Temple, also did murals and paintings for a number of other temples, including the Brigham City Temple instruction room, pictured above.

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“Evening Angels” by James Christensen was on display at the Springville Museum of Art as a part of a family exhibit: "Curiouser and Curiouser." 

According to Robert Marshall, a key mural artist for the Provo City Center Temple, there’s a saying that’s used by people upon the completion of a project: “Well, it’s good enough for who it’s for.”

But what about when that project involves a temple – literally considered the house of the Lord?

“We like to turn that around and say, ‘Is it good enough for who it’s for?’ — and you realize that you are trying to make an offering that is acceptable to deity, and that’s a pretty overwhelming responsibility,” Marshall said.

Marshall is one of two artists (along with local artist James Christensen) to have his mural designs accepted for reproduction in the instruction rooms of the Provo City Center Temple, and one of a team of 10 total artists who took those designs from an initial draft to an incredible, large-scale parable of sorts, beautifully adorning the inner walls and ceilings of the temple.

Countless hours of effort, prayers and the magnifying of talent went into the temple’s murals, leading to a finished product those involved can only describe as inspired.

The murals, reflective of the temple’s pioneer heritage, were hand-painted locally and stand as yet another witness of the purifying flames of trial.

The work of miracles

Though work on the Provo City Center Temple murals was a months-long process, the artists feel it was a sincere blessing.

“It was amazing, just the last few months of finishing it up,” said Utah artist and mural painter Downy Doxey-Marshall, daughter-in-law of Robert Marshall and a key player in ensuring the murals were completed on time.

With her father-in-law suffering illness and requiring surgery, fellow painter and designer James Christensen relapsing into cancer and requiring treatment, and even another mural artist having a car accident, there were plenty of obstacles the artists faced.

“But everybody was really blessed,” she said. “Now they’re all doing a lot better. (James’) cancer is gone, and Robert is getting back to health. I don’t even know how it all happened. I think everyone was blessed just from their efforts and their faith and their work on this temple.”

Christensen himself also came to the same conclusion.

“I can’t help but make a parallel between being willing to do these kinds of church projects and getting my health back,” he said, regarding his health issues during the course of painting the murals. “I was able to work through the whole (process of radiation), much to the amazement of my doctors. I was wiped out and I wasn’t working at 100 percent, but at the end of the day, we got it done and had the ability to get it done.”

Now officially 100 percent cancer free, Christensen said one of the biggest miracles is how unified the murals look, despite the size of the team that worked on them.

“By the time we were finished, there were about 10 (sets of) hands that painted on those murals,” Christensen said. “What was amazing is when you see them, they look like they could have been done by the same person. … It was pretty magical for me to see how all these artists with very different painting styles could come together and execute a piece that actually worked. It is incredible.”

In regard to the beautiful, hand-painted murals of the Provo City Center Temple, those many hands made possible the work.

Nauvoo: A launching pad for mural art

The Provo City Center Temple, rebuilt from the burned and decimated Provo Tabernacle, isn’t the only temple that rose from ashes. From the inner murals and artwork to the construction process, many parallels can be made to yet another rebuilt, pioneer temple: Nauvoo.

The Nauvoo Temple, originally constructed in 1841, was destroyed by mobs in 1848 and further decimated by winds in 1850. In 2002, under the direction of then-prophet President Gordon B. Hinckley, the temple was rebuilt to precise historical specifications and became, once again, a beautiful edifice dedicated to the Lord.

Many have felt similar sentiments toward the recently completed Provo City Center Temple, its tragic destruction by fire in 2010 and subsequent rebuilding as the second temple within the city of Provo.

Rising from the ashes in a restoration of beauty and pioneer heritage, no expense was spared or effort wasted in building a holy temple that did justice not only to its heritage, but also to its future as the faith’s house of God.

The murals depicted in the temple are no different, reflecting a beauty and a unity that can only be improved by refining fire of trial and faithful endurance.

The Nauvoo Temple plays into the story of the Provo City Center Temple in more ways than just having a similar rebuilding process. It also served as a starting point for several of the muralists who worked on Provo’s designs.

Christensen said it all began with a local artist named Frank Magleby, who had gone on a mission for the church with a very specific calling: to paint easel paintings for foreign temples. When the time came for the Nauvoo Temple to be constructed, they approached him, Christensen said, and asked if he could put a team together to paint murals to enhance the walls of the temple interior.

The group included Magleby, Christopher Young, Gary Smith, Doug Fryer, James Christensen and Robert Marshall. Three generations of students were in the group, and together they created some incredible images that live in the Nauvoo Temple today.

Though Magleby passed away in 2013 and Young went on to other ventures, Christensen, Marshall, Fryer and Smith went on to paint in other temples under the name Frank’s Boys, as a way to honor the artist and instructor that started it all. They are also four of the 10 key artists who worked on the murals for the Provo City Center Temple, along with Cassandra Barney and Emily McPhie (Christensen’s daughters), Downy Doxey-Marshall, David Linn, Jennifer Thompson and Clark Schafer.

For Christensen, the opportunity to have a hand in such a holy work has been an incredible undertaking that he first realized at a young age.

“I had an experience going through the murals at the open house of the Los Angeles Temple (in the mid-1950s),” he said. “I saw the murals there and it just overwhelmed me and I thought, ‘What kind of a person could do these sorts of things,’ and it was just beyond me. No one could wish for anything better than to do a mural for a temple.”

Christensen said it was just after that that the church quit doing wall murals in temples — until Nauvoo, that is. Many years and several temples later, Christensen still sees the opportunity as a blessing, and a unique addition to his career as an artist.

“Am I a religious painter?” he asked. “I don’t do many Bible scenes and that sort of thing. My own direction has moved a little more fantastical and stylized, though I have done a few. But I’ve always accepted that it was a gift and a privilege and a responsibility (to create artwork for LDS temples). I’ve tried to use my art to uplift and occasionally chastise, but most of the time I encourage people and give them a job and give them things to think about. But I’m always very aware that I was blessed with a gift.”

From concept to canvas

So how are murals designed and selected for temples? It’s a question Robert Marshall is very familiar with.

“The LDS church has continued to paint murals in most of the temples, not all, and we’ve been fortunate enough to be selected to work on a few of them,” he said. “Every mural is directed by a particular designer and various artists are invited to send in proposals, anywhere from three to six, usually. Then they go through various committees … a minimum of three assessments of the artists that have been invited to make their presentations.”

According to Marshall, the process includes an initial screening of a proposed mural or piece of art by a committee of art dealers, architects and church representatives, as well as acceptance from the Presiding Bishopric of the church and finally First Presidency approval.

In the case of the Provo City Center Temple, four murals were presented, and those proposed by Marshall and Christensen were accepted, with the other artists joining in to help bring the designs to fruition.

“It’s a very special project to be involved in,” Marshall said. “You hope that what you’re doing is acceptable and appropriate. … The Church is very careful about the quality of materials and what they do inside temples. They cut no corners and they want people to feel like it is an offering, and hopefully it is acceptable by He whose house it is – the Lord’s house.”

Marshall said the mural painting process comes complete with tender moments and those rife with frustration due to the sheer size and magnitude of the work, but the end hope is that the skills of the artists will be able to meet the challenge. Some simple math, including age and years as an artist, led Marshall to conclude that there are more than 200 years of experience for the artists who worked on the Provo City Center Temple’s murals, so “we should be able to figure something out, right?”

Joking aside, though, the sacred responsibility was one that weighed heavily on each of the artists involved.

“You of course are a bit overwhelmed by the venue and by the responsibility,” Marshall said. “It’s not like I’m doing a painting for a client that’s a home or a business. The temple murals are expected to serve a very specific purpose. They’re both beautiful and instructional. The artists try to develop images that are well done, beautiful and engaging, but also instructional, so that it doesn’t distract from the reason people are there, but that it only contributes to the sacredness of the ordinances that are being performed.”

Gary Smith agreed. “To have your work in the temple and to have it part of the ambiance of the whole room and have it as something that supplements the presentation and puts the individual into the environment which invites the spirit – it’s kind of a different thing than just painting for yourself or painting for a broad audience and specific purpose,” he said. “It’s a very spiritual experience.”

Smith has had plenty of practice; he worked on the Apia Samoa and Brigham City Temples himself, among others. He is also currently in the process of submitting a design for potential use as a mural in the baptistery of the Jordan River Temple.

A similar process of careful design and submission to a committee is required for general artwork enhancing the halls and rooms elsewhere in the temple, something Smith has gone through many times, and something that Downy Doxey-Marshall has done for the Provo City Center Temple in addition to her work on the murals.

Doxey-Marshall worked with her father-in-law to create the initial digital designs and assisted with the project from canvas to completion.

“It’s like every day I just knew what it needed to look like and what it needed to have,” she said of the process. ” … I hadn’t spent a lot of time painting landscapes, mostly just figures and interiors, but every day I knew (what the murals) needed to look like.”

Doxey-Marshall also submitted a painting that will be on display elsewhere in the temple, a close-up landscape portrait of a view from the ground, looking up at flowers and the sky.

“I want to make work that instead of just saying something, like a lot of my work, I want to have work that does something for you,” she said, of her current quest with her artwork. “I want something that puts people at ease or is therapeutic. Something people would want to live with.”

The murals in detail

To coordinate the murals for the Provo City Center Temple took careful work and inspiration, finding just the right details while omitting others that were originally planned. The scope of such a project is daunting, and, according to Doug Smith, is a reason many artists don’t attempt mural work.

“It is probably, I would say, one of the highest things an artist can do in regard to giving of yourself and your talent,” Smith said, in regard to working on murals for the temple. “Not a lot of artists can paint murals because they’re so large.”

To give an idea of just how large the murals had to be, the design Smith submitted for the Jordan River Temple provides for a 17-foot-tall mural. The Provo City Center Temple murals took a page out of the book of the Salt Lake Temple muralists. It included designs to encompass not just the walls, but the ceilings as well for a total, according to Smith, of roughly 680,000 square inches of painting for just one room – essentially over 56,000 square feet of work.

For Downy Doxey-Marshall, one of the best and hardest parts of the whole process was the detailing on the ceilings, which required climbing a scaffolding to paint horozontally in Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel fashion, details that had to be added in the temple itself.

“I could only work maybe three hours at a time,” she said. “I had to stand up to paint and lean my head back to paint right above my head … but it was an amazing thing. I didn’t even think I could do it. I don’t know how it worked, but it did. It was amazing to get on your construction clothes, hard hats and boots and go in there and paint.”

According to Smith, the murals in modern temples vary from the Salt Lake Temple in one key way: rather than just being painted onto the plaster of the walls, which allows for deterioration and the need for repair or replacement, modern murals are done on prepared canvas that is installed in the temple.

“A lot of the original mural done in the 1920s and 1930s or even before – a lot of those paintings don’t exist anymore just because of structural problems,” Smith said. “The rooms all have the same feeling but tend to have changed a bit over the years just because they had to correct things that were problems.”

As with the Nauvoo murals, the majority of the murals used in the Provo City Center Temple were painted at the BYU Motion Picture Studio with just details and the ceilings actually painted in the temple itself.

Smith said the painting process, though it encompassed many months of time, started simply before getting more complicated as it progressed.

“We would pray before we started and would ask for the spirit to be with us as we painted and would get inspiration as we would go along. We started with a very small concept, just 24 by 33 inches, and had to take that idea and blow it up to 60 feet long, and a brushstroke becomes like a foot. You have to deal with everything that’s in between and recreate everything as you go along. A lot of detail is added that aren’t necessarily in the original study. There’s a lot of differences that take place.”

Tackling a project of such large magnitude required additional help, according to Robert Marshall.

“In Provo, they wanted the ceiling painted as well as the walls, so it was a bigger job than just the four of us (Smith, Christensen, Fryer and Marshall) could do, so some other artists were invited to participate and contribute, to help with just the scope of the whole project,” he said. 

The murals themselves share some common themes. The artwork, though, is unlike that of any other temple.

“This is not a pioneer temple like Salt Lake, Manti and St. George,” Christensen noted. “They have three rooms of murals and (temple patrons) moved from the creation room to a garden room and a world room. These rooms are called instruction rooms – you don’t move from room to room. … It was decided to paint the murals that would show all three of the concepts of the old rooms together.”

The artists were tasked with representing the creation of the world, a beautiful garden and an incredible landscape all in one, progressive mural.

“That was a challenge, but it’s the kind of challenge that I enjoy in my own art, too,” Christensen said. “The works take on multiple subjects but we made them all look like they work in one piece. I enjoy that – that design challenge.”

“It goes from the creation to the garden to the world, and from spring to summer to fall to winter, and from night to day all in one room,” Downy Doxey-Marshall noted, in regard to her father-in-law’s mural design. “It was a really big undertaking and I didn’t think we could do all that, but it just came together. Everyone worked on their strengths. We started out sectioning off sections … but once we got going and with the health issues the last few months, everyone just had to dig in and paint what they did the best at. We just painted over each other’s work and it became just a really beautiful cohesive painting.”

Though vastly different, Christensen’s design has a similar parable-type theme, blending multiple concepts into one incredible finished product.

“The room I designed starts in the back with the creation and land and water and celestial stuff going on, and then it sort of morphs into plants and animals and garden up both sides,” Christensen said of the other mural. “It kind of tracks from back to the front of the room where it turns into the world.”

Though Christensen states there are no hidden images to be found in the murals of the temple, he did note that careful observation can add entire layers to the work.

“The temple is a sacred place and I wouldn’t do any tricks,” he said. “The closest we came was to put quite a bit of detail in it. You might find a red bird flying in front of red poppies – the bird is about the same size as the flowers and so it takes a while, but as you’re watching you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s not just five poppies, one of those is a bird.’ There are a few of those, but not hidden ones.”

“It’s incredible,” Barney said of the fine details of the murals. “My favorite part are the flamingos – that was my happiest day, painting flamingos. The colors are just beautiful (in the murals). … Overall I think it’s just stunning – the whole temple is stunning. I went in sort of thinking it would not be as beautiful as it is, and I was really impressed, and the murals fit nicely. It doesn’t look hodge-podged. It looks like it was just supposed to be that way.”

Smith also commented on the new concept used in the rooms, noting specifically the contrast between the execution of the two.

“(James Christensen’s) is more allegorical – it has the creation which takes place on the ceiling and wraps down around into the back and forward into the separation of land and water then into the garden and into the world, so both rooms have that concept but are totally different from each other,” Smith said. “(Robert Marshall’s) has the Utah Valley in it and Mount Timpanogos and Utah Lake with wildlife around the lake. … Probably the thing that impresses me the most about it is just the overall feel about it.”

Smith did a lot of the detailing and work on the image of Mount Timpanogos and said it’s one thing he’s proud of, but mostly he said he’s impacted each time he stops and looks at the whole project, observing how it all pulled together.

Provo City Center Temple: Leaving a new legacy

According to Doug Smith, the church is expecting around 900,000 people to make the trip to the Provo City Center Temple for its open house, and said it was an honor to be able to work on a project that would not only be seen by that many people, but also remain as a legacy in the temple.

“It’s a great honor to be able to work on the temple that is actually going to get such a high profile because of what it was – it has historic value and is a temple,” he said. “The historic quality of it is significant to a lot of people they used to attend conferences and symphonies and things like that in the tabernacle. It was wonderful for me when I found out the church was going to preserve it as a temple when it could so easily have been torn down.”

The finished product is one that’s not only meaningful in a symbolic way, but also one that captures the historic beauty of the original structure.

“This temple is a show temple,” Smith said. “It’s going to be known as the wedding temple, it really is. The exterior is wonderful, and just wait until you see the interior.”

Each of the artists involved with the Provo City Center Temple shared their joy at having been involved in such a sacred work, though a common theme among them was an overwhelming sense of humility.

“I don’t know if I want to tackle any more (temple murals) just because I don’t have as much energy as I used to but to be able to work on two, on kind of those landmark temples (Nauvoo and Provo City Center) has been pretty exciting,” Christensen said. “You find yourself saying, ‘Why me?’ And you know, I’ve been around long enough to know a lot of other artists in the church and it was a little baffling why they picked me – the guy who paints fairies and puffy dwarves.

“It’s a testimony to me (of the power of) the prayers of a whole lot of friends and people,” Christensen said in conclusion. “Through this whole process both (Robert Marshall) and I were able to keep working and I think some of the helpers were beyond their own abilities.”

“Both James and I had serious health issues during the painting of the murals and some very spiritual blessings and promises were made to us that we would be able to complete them and that the work would be acceptable,” Robert Marshall said. “But with his health and my health there were a couple periods of time where the calendar keeps marching on the deadline is coming.”

Ultimately, everything was finished, and the murals stand not only as a beautiful feature in a historic temple, but also a project that has enhanced the special atmosphere of the temple and the lives of those who contributed to it.


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