This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
Light of the World Garden
The Light of the World Garden is the newest addition to Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah. It is part of a nonprofit garden, farm, and museum complex that draws upon the natural world to cultivate transformative family learning. Family activities include a dinosaur museum, a farm, a children’s museum (so amazing that I went with a group of adults once), a movie theater, and the Ashton Gardens. The gardens boast 55 acres of nature’s best, including the largest man-made waterfall in the Western hemisphere and 15 themed gardens.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Light of the World Garden. In addition to experiencing this bold and thought-provoking exhibit, which features 35 bronze statues organized into 15 scenes depicting the life of Christ, I also had the enlightening opportunity to interview the garden’s sculptor, Angela Johnson.
Angela found a deep love and admiration for Jesus Christ from a young age while enduring difficult family circumstances. That love for the Savior has always been her reason for finding meaning in this life, despite serious trials. The idea of a sculpture garden portraying scenes of Christ’s life first came to her 13 years ago when Angela, acknowledging that her talent came from God, asked Him what He would have her do with this talent.
It surprised me to hear how Angela discovered her talent for sculpting, a journey I consider quite extraordinary. Angela was actually a very talented opera singer, and had trained for an operatic career since she was 13 years old. After spending over twenty years training in and performing opera music, God revealed that He had different plans for her that did not include achieving her vocal goals. After this devastating realization, Angela says:
“I went to the art store, bought a block of water-based clay, one sculpting tool, and four hours later there was a portrait bust of a little girl on my kitchen table. When I pulled the plastic down off the clay and my hands went into the clay, all the pain left my heart. There was an intelligence in my hands I had never felt before…It was really like I came home to something very ancient inside of me.”
I would definitely agree that Angela’s talent is from a divine source. She has answered the call given to her to create art that inspires, uplifts, and teaches of Christ. The sculptures capture beautifully the real-life emotions of Christ, as well as his disciples and followers – all touched by His loving treatment. The sculptures portray 14 biblical stories, including Christ walking on the water, the woman healed by touching the hem of Christ’s robe, and the suffering of the Atonement.
In addition to these 14 biblical scenes, there is also a scene of Christ’s life found in the Book of Mormon — the appearance of Jesus Christ and the Father to Joseph Smith, a 14-year old boy called to be a prophet and restore The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is interesting to note that almost half of the scenes Angela chose to sculpt depict Jesus Christ interacting with women. Her goal was to show a relevant Christ in a very modern application. Her thoughtful interpretations of scriptural stories show Christ’s concern for each person individually, regardless of gender, status, or age.
The idea of the sculpture garden came to Angela in 2003. But it wasn’t until 2007 when she met Karen Ashton, cofounder of Thanksgiving Point, that the collaboration with Ashton Gardens began. Now after 9 years of hard work, Angela stands within the garden surrounded by the finished statues. She has one hope for the exhibit. “My greatest hope is that they’ll think more of Christ, that they’ll talk more of him, that they’ll come here and reflect and ponder…and see His hand in our lives.”
The garden certainly did that for me and more. As impactful as her work, is the process behind her work. Every artist is familiar with the woes of “artist block” when the inspiration and motivation seems to dry up and the direction is unclear. At times like these, Angela says she would kneel down on a rug in her studio and offer a prayer. Then she would simply get back to work and the spiritual confirmation would follow. She simply knew that because she was using her talent to bless others, the inspiration she needed would come. It always did.
Lost Wax Casting Process
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Angela had to do with the process by which clay statues become bronze. In the process of lost wax casting, Angela’s delicate clay statues were covered with a very sophisticated silicone rubber which registers even minute detail. In fact, Angela said that at times she has seen the imprint of her Levis transferred all the way to the bronze statue. That’s how good the silicone is at recording every detail! After the silicone is applied, plaster is also applied to the outside of the silicone. The plaster gives the silicone mold form and strength.
The plaster and silicone mold are then cut off the clay in several puzzle pieces, which actually ruins the clay. The plaster/silicone mold is then filled with wax and the wax casting is removed from the plaster mold. The wax casting is dipped in several layers of slurry to create a ceramic shell. This ceramic shell is then filled with the liquid bronze, which melts away the wax inside. After cooling, the ceramic shell is pounded off of the bronze and all the pieces are welded together. High speed grinding tools are used to make the seams literally invisible to the viewer’s eye.
After hearing Angela’s explanation (and watching a handful of YouTube videos to make sure I understood the process), I was astounded at the rough road that each clay statue had to travel to become a beautiful bronze statue. Angela summed it up perfectly when she said, “It is very difficult to see that whole process buffet and impact your delicate clay statue, [but] in the end it’s this amazing bronze that people can touch. [It can go through] snow, wind, rain, and there it is, intact.”
I learned a very important lesson as I sat in the garden listening to Angela describe this process. Perhaps our lives feel a lot like the process of lost wax casting, at times. We see our lives and dreams go through things that appear to ruin them. In the end we are strong enough to endure the harshest elements. Our Savior is a skillful artist who lovingly guides us through the heat, pounding, and extreme changes of this process. He transforms us from fragile and impressionable clay to strong, immovable beings.
Angela Johnson’s skilled hands and faithful heart have created a haven of peace. People of all faiths can visit to admire the artistry and learn about the life of Jesus Christ. I hope these unique insights gained from my time with Angela help you to appreciate the garden even more. It was an honor to get to know the artist, her personal story, and the process that brought this exhibit to life. I encourage you to visit and feel the peace and awe I found within the Light of the World Garden.
On September 24, 2016, Elder Jeffrey R Holland dedicated the Light of the World Garden. He said, “The best thing about these gardens and statuary is that they will add significantly to the faith of all those who come to these grounds. We need religious faith as much or more now than at any time in the history of the world.”
Jessica Heaton guest-wrote this article. I am so very proud of her accomplishments as a wife, mother, and artistic director of Wasatch Contemporary Dance Company; she is also my daughter!
I want to thank Angela Johnson for sharing her gift with the world and Ashton Gardens for their collaboration. For more information about the Light of the World Garden, please check out their website and their sculpture garden tour. You might also enjoy reading about my visit to Ashton Gardens.
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