Angela Johnson grew up with a burning desire to become an opera star. She wholeheartedly pursued that goal while she raised a family, until a powerful spiritual impression changed her life path. Entirely self-taught, she is now an accomplished sculptor who uses her gift to share her testimony of Jesus Christ, including in a permanent installment called the Light of the World Garden. She hopes her story empowers others to discover and develop the unique gifts they have been given.
Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up, family, structure, etc?
I grew up on a dairy farm in Montana, very close to the Canadian border. I was the fifth of nine children, five girls, four boys. My mother was very into classical music—specifically opera music. When I heard opera, I was just enchanted by it. I was a very shy, withdrawn little girl, partly because there was a lot of abuse in my family. She got me into voice lessons when I was 13 and I always wanted to be a prima donna when I grew up. That was the trajectory I was on.
What was your opera training like?
I got a scholarship to BYU in vocal performance. In my 20s and 30s I had recital and concert opportunities, studied with vocal coaches from Europe, and worked extremely hard to accomplish my goal. I got married when I was 18 and had four children. When I started having children I continued to study privately. I did opera workshops and part-time classes at community colleges to develop my languages. I practiced my repertoire of Italian, German, French, and Spanish arias. My mind was definitely set. Opera was never in competition with my love for my children or my family because they always came first. Sometimes, for various reasons, women stop developing themselves when they have a family, but that wasn’t my experience. I just continued to do it, and involved my children. In between peanut butter sandwiches, they’d play with their Legos underneath my piano. My kids would watch me make my own costumes on the sewing machine. There I was doing all of this as they were developing their creativity and I was helping them develop their talents. When I’d go to bed and stop singing, somebody would say, “Hey, keep singing. I’m not asleep yet!” My children and my grandchildren are the greatest light of my life. They have a beauty that comes from heaven and it fed my soul. Even with opera as my individual interest, I could still manage them, and I managed them very intensely.
Where did your empowerment to fully pursue both creative and family pursuits come from?
My absolute, fervent conviction is that growth, challenge, and creativity are a vital part of my faith. Our inheritance as children of God is what empowered and continues to empower my growth. You never stop being an individual. According to our religious beliefs, we all have our own individual, eternal identity. To me it was never a question or an option not to develop myself. Nor was I intimidated or felt like I got lost when I became a mother. I felt immediately magnified. Exploring the imaginations of children just accentuated my own. I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be a prima donna at the Metropolitan Opera. Never mind that down the road when I’d audition or talk to opera people they’d say, “You know, you’re really very talented. You’ve just got one problem. You have a family.” When you have a vocal career, it is your family. It is your marriage. It is your children. I thought, “Well maybe in your world, but not in mine.”
With this kind of blind naiveté I just kept going in that direction. I had the opportunity to teach at BYU Education Week at Hawaii and BYU Idaho for eight years about the power of music. I was building up this amazing reservoir and repertoire of performances, yet I also dealt with performance anxiety issues. It was never easy. Every time I sang, I would have serious panic attacks. But the backdrop of living in an abusive environment must have provided its own fire in my soul. Abuse is so suffocating and destructive that if you’re not moving up and out of it, it can take all life out of you.
How did your early experiences shape your relationship with Jesus Christ?
From the time that I can remember, I have always loved Jesus Christ. I have always felt very close to him. I don’t know if it was a gift to help me to overcome the things I needed to overcome, but it has just always been there. Our trajectories in life are so unique and individual. It’s not for anyone to say, “Oh I feel badly because I didn’t have that.” It’s for them to look across the fabric and the tapestry of their lives and say, “Well this was her experience, and I can compare it to mine, but it doesn’t necessarily make mine greater or lesser. It’s just different.”
It is amazing that people can move through such difficult challenges. Because at the time, you think they’re going to take you out. It’s the paradox and dichotomy in each of our lives that make us scratch our heads because we don’t have the answer sheet. We don’t get to look at the end of the book and go, “Oh, ok. That makes sense.” Rather, what are you going to do with your life? Are you going to lie there and die, or are you going to get up? Music helped me get up. But every time I sang, I’d experience excruciating pain. I am a daughter of God that Jesus Christ has blessed. He continues to perform his miracles, transforming ashes into beauty.
What was the transition from opera path to sculpting path?
This is the crescendo—to use a music term—building and building. I would have an audition or an opportunity, and I would get really close, but then it would move a mile away. It would think, “Ok I’m just about ready to break through,” and then it would move, and I would ask myself, “What is going on?” I believe in the philosophy that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to, and believe me, I had done that. I had paid the price and had diligently put a laser focus on it.
I was in my late 30s and all my kids were in school. In the opera world, if you’re not singing at the Met in your late 30s, then there’s something wrong with you. I sat down at the piano on a spring morning in 1997 and started to launch into my 4-5 hours of vocal work. Then the spirit came to me and the message that it gave was, “You will never accomplish your ultimate vocal goals.” There was such a serious tone that I knew I was being told the truth. It wasn’t like, “Please! I’ll work harder! I’m doing my part!” None of that. I knew it was true. All of the scaffolding, all of the “You can do this,” all of the positive thinking, all of the optimism, all of the presentations, recitals, concerts, and auditions started to fall. And as it fell, I was completely devastated.
The only way I can describe what happened next is very similar to how in the scriptures, certain prophets talk about being taken by the spirit. I felt I was taken by the spirit to the local art store where I bought a block of water based clay and one sculpting tool, and immediately drove back home.
When I pulled the plastic down off the clay and my hands went into it, all the pain in my heart was gone. Like it just disappeared right into the clay. I began to take handfuls of clay in almost a choreographed motion, as though I knew exactly what I was doing. There was an intelligence in my hands I had never felt before. Four hours later there was a portrait of a little girl on my kitchen table. I was so taken and charmed with it that it felt like God’s fingers touched my heart and said, “It is now time for you to develop a talent that you didn’t know you had.” At that point there was absolutely no thought in my mind that I would ever depict Jesus Christ. The whole concept would have seemed ludicrous and extremely presumptuous since I had no background in sculpture. How could I even think of doing that?
I’ve always wondered what the word “epiphany” actually means. But when you have one, you know that’s what it is. It’s something that you can’t logically explain, but you don’t need to logically explain it. The feeling was one of complete embrace. I started to sculpt one thing after another and about a year from when I began, I got my first bronze commission. For the next five years I had an amazing response to my sculpting and did 12 different commissions for various organizations.
In spring 2003, I prayed again and said, “Heavenly Father, I know this gift is from you. But what do you want me to do with it?” In answer to that question, I was given a concept of a sculpture garden depicting Jesus Christ. It was given to me with absolute certainty that it would happen. That power of the spirit filled my soul and stayed with me from 2003 all the way to when the Light of the World Garden was unveiled at Thanksgiving Point [Utah] in September 2016. It was very intense!
Once you knew that you were going to start these sculptures of Christ, how did you get the inspiration for them? How did you determine what your message would be?
That’s a really good question, because many times we have false assumptions of how God gives us personal revelation. My personal revelation was the divine commission, the certitude that it would happen. But the rest of it was placed on my shoulders. What scenes you depict, the depiction of the Savior’s face, all of it was a process of myriad decisions, one right after another, in rapid succession. What resonates with me is depicting a relevant Christ. Not one that’s quaint and provincial, or a historical depiction. But selecting scenes that make modern viewers say, “Wow. That’s my story.” Or “That really surprises me.”
Many of your sculptures feature women. Do you feel a pull to include women or tell their stories?
Absolutely. One of the first things I wanted to do was to have a large number of scenes involve women. I’ve never wondered, “Where are women in the gospel? Where are women in the church?” To me, they’re everywhere. There are so many more I would have loved to depict. I know the tools of the adversary to demean women. To mock them. To make them feel or seem invisible. I agree with James Talmage (a former LDS apostle) who says that there’s no greater champion of women and womanhood than Jesus Christ. Whatever the cultural traditions since the beginning of time, that’s not from Christ. I love to see women stand up, be glorious, develop their intellect, and engage in a nurturing way, whether they have children or not. I love to put them out there and tell their stories.
Tell us about the feedback that you’ve gotten about your Light of the World Garden. Are there any specific anecdotes that stick out of how your work has affected people?
I was interviewed by a reporter from The Salt Lake Tribune. When he first came in, he was borderline flippant about, “Oh yay. We get to photograph and I get to interview this Jesus lady. Wow this is really fun.” And I thought, “Ok, whatever. At least we’re here together.” By the time we got over to “Lazarus, Come Forth,” he had a complete transformation. He was speaking quietly, without the previous attitude. He was very serious and said, “This is really intense.” It ended up to be one of my more moving interviews because the transition from where he started to where he ended was quite extreme. It was really beautiful.
I have what I call “The Principle of Immersion.” There’s not just one statue of Christ, there are 15. From any point in the garden you can see probably three or four others. There have been many times when people have come up and said, “I have no idea what’s going on. You’ve got the scripture reference there, and you have the title of it, but tell me what the story’s about.” Maybe they didn’t go to Sunday School or they weren’t taught the Bible. But the interaction of the Savior with the individuals is engaging. And it’s meant to be engaging because Christ is that way. That is who he is. It’s not a one-way relationship. He doesn’t engage regardless of whether we want a relationship with him or not. He asks, “Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you.” It’s the participation. This is what every one of these scenes is depicting. Even “O My Father,” where the Savior is in prayer, he is participating with his Father in Heaven. It’s all about participation.
The daughter of a friend of mine took her 3-year-old to the statue garden, and she sent me a picture of the little girl standing on her tippy toes looking into Joseph Smith’s eyes as he’s kneeling on the ground. My friend’s daughter asked the girl, “Honey what do you see in his eyes?” and she said, “Mommy, I see that he says, ‘I love you.’” Talk about “out of the mouth of babes.” Another woman emailed and said, “I hope it’s okay that I painted a picture of a photograph I took. Of all the statues in the garden, my little granddaughter sat at the feet of the Savior carrying the cross and wouldn’t move for the longest time. I took a picture of her there and painted it.” I replied, “I think that’s great! Send me this painting so I can see it!” It was so spiritual and so beautiful. When I’m there, I see people reading the entire scripture reference on each sculpture. I put a whole chapter as a scripture reference so that visitors would feel the context of what’s going on. It’s been extremely positive.
When The Light of the World became a permanent part of Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point, they decided to have a Christmas lighting extravaganza. They put little battery operated candles in tiny lanterns hung on shepherd hooks that were secured in the ground. There were probably over a thousand around the whole installment, and it was an absolutely breathtakingly spiritual experience. In the first year, of the 60,000 people that attended, over half of the guests responded on a survey that The Light of the World was their favorite part of the experience.
I was surprised at how moved I was just doing my research for this interview, looking at pictures of the garden online. Thank you for creating something that even from far away, can be a powerful experience.
You don’t have to be an art critic. All you have to be is a person that can determine how they feel by themselves. People ask, “Who’s Angela Johnson? She’s not even famous. Did she come from Italy? What university did she study at?” The reality is, because I am self-taught, the glory is more appropriately assigned to God because there’s no other explanation as to how I could do this.
What blessings have you seen from the unexpected path that your life has taken?
It’s my true identity. I feel greater peace. There’s just no comparison at all to what I assumed I would find in my operatic dreams as to how it feels for me to bear testimony of Jesus Christ through art. It’s so fulfilling. Beyond that, it’s the message, it’s the witness to my posterity of what was really most important for me. To have been given a tool to bear my testimony of Christ has been transforming.
What have you learned about yourself in this process of sculpting these works?
Where Christ is concerned—because I wouldn’t do this for any other subject matter—I have incredible tenacity. Sculpting is so physical, so demanding. It’s really hard. And the way that the concept of the sculpture garden was given to me, and never left, was a magnificent endowment that strengthened me through a lot of really difficult obstacles.
What have you learned about Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ through this process?
How very personal they are, which is such a fascinating thing to contemplate. How many times are we as human beings distracted? And yet, they never are. You call someone and go, “Oh can I put you on hold for just a minute?” They never put us on hold. To me, the gateway of eternity is one of discovery and exploration, and they don’t rob us of that. I was so focused on one goal. With or without God’s approval, I was going to make my operatic career happen. When I was given that personal revelation as an answer to my prayer, I could have rejected it. But Heavenly Father knew I wouldn’t do that. And the rest is history.
I was exhausted as the garden got closer and closer to completion, I had to finish two monumental statues a month. That’s unheard of. The foundry I worked with was amazing and bronzed two statues a month, which is also unheard of. Typically, one large statue takes 4-6 months, But the spirit said to me, “You do not know, you cannot comprehend the individuals whose lives will be touched by this work. But I do. Please finish. Please continue. Please stay strong. Do it for all those I will be able to reach with my spirit.” And I thought, “I will do it.”
Briefly, for people who aren’t familiar with the sculpting process, what does it look like?
It’s so interesting when people say, “Oh, I can’t even draw a stick figure.” If you can draw a stick figure, then you can sculpt. The armature is a stick figure. It’s the metal framework inside that holds the clay, comparable to a skeletal structure for how we support ourselves. Clay alone can’t support itself. You have to have an understanding of proportion and what you’re going to do. What you want to do determines what kind of model and what kind of clothing they’re going to wear. I use living models and photograph them, then work mostly from the photographic detail. You have to know what story you are telling with the statue. Gradually, just as our thoughts shape us, my intent, thoughts, and desires shape the statue. They guide all of the refinement, all of the clarification, all of the anatomy that goes into it.
How do you do research for you work? The facial expressions, the positions people are in?
In high school I was very much into acting. One of the gifts of having the perspective of an actor is to be able to contemplate everything about whomever you’re trying to portray. Their gestures, their body language, the way they would hold their head. I wanted the end result of the sculptures to be so real that if people stood next to them, if they were really quiet, it would feel like they could hear them breathe. Because that is how lifelike the scriptures are to me. The scriptures are so three-dimensional, not just black lines and dots on a white page. They’re very vibrant and alive.
What final wisdom would you share?
If I could give a gift to every woman in the church, it would be to have them have this scintillating awareness of how magnificent they are. To really have the understanding of what it truly means to be a daughter of God and to have the sacred opportunity to be a mother, or a sister, or a daughter, or a friend, or a wife. So many times the arts are pointed to as the only really valid expression of talents, which I completely disagree with. Talents can be manifested in an intellectual pursuit, biological pursuit, gardening, whatever you love. It’s completely wide open. One of the greatest gifts and talents are those individuals that can listen to other people.
I wish for women to truly know they have always existed, and that they will continue to exist into eternity. That everything we see around us is temporary. So many times we think, “If I don’t accomplish that in this life, I’ve failed,” just like I did with my music. But that’s not true. If we have a constant flow of love between the Godhead and ourselves, we are already in a powerful, successful frequency. It’s all so divinely guided because He knows our potential.
Do you miss opera at all?
I do not miss it at all. In fact, when I perform or give a presentation now, I will sing one of my favorite hymns. The attention that my sculpting has received surpassed the whole thing with opera. It was opera arias that charmed me, it wasn’t necessarily the art form. I’ve had pneumonia and a couple of things as I’ve aged that have clipped my wings, so to speak, with the physicality that operatic arias take. But I am still blown away with how fast music can take the spirit straight to the heart. So when I want to create a feeling of an extra endowment of the spirit, I will start the presentation, instead of end it, with singing.
At A Glance
Name: Angela Johnson
Location: Highland, Utah
Marital History: Divorced
Children: Four children, ages 40, 38, 35, 33
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, Arizona State University
Favorite Hymn: "I Stand All Amazed," and "The Lord is My Shepherd"
Personal Website: http://ajsculptures.com/
Light of the World Garden: http://lightoftheworldgarden.com/
Interview Produced by Nollie Haws