In 1890, four LDS men left their homes and families in Utah to begin missionary service in France.
Their assignment was a bit different than those fellow missionaries charged with bringing the gospel to Europe. Instead of taking to the streets to teach of the restored Church and the Book of Mormon, this quartet — Lorus Pratt, John B. Fairbanks, John Hafen and Edwin Evans — sequestered themselves for months in the studios and classrooms of the Parisian art masters.
There they sharpened what they believed to be God-given artistic talents so they could return to Utah and paint the murals inside the soon-to-be-dedicated Salt Lake Temple. They were joined a short time later by a fifth "art missionary," 19-year-old Herman H. Haag.
The missionaries believed their unusual calling came from the Lord.
"Being a firm believer that the highest possible development of talent is a duty we owe to our Creator," wrote Elder Hafen, "I made it a matter of prayer for many years that He would open a way whereby I could receive that training which would befit me to decorate His holy temples and the habitations of Zion" (Linda Jones Gibbs, Harvesting the Light: The Paris Art Mission and the Beginnings of Utah Impressionism, p.3).
LDS artist Linda Curley Christensen has long admired the devotion of those early art missionaries. She often thought of President Gordon B. Hinckley's challenge to older adults to share their expertise in missionary service. So she submitted a proposal a few years ago to follow the lead of Brother Hafen and the others and serve as an art missionary painting murals for the temples.
Sister Christensen's wish was realized earlier this year when she and more than a dozen fellow faithful artists were called and set apart as missionaries to produce murals for the Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple under construction in South Jordan, Utah. Since June, the missionaries have been gathering together in Sister Christensen's Wallsburg, Utah, studio to work on the colorful murals.
Like her missionary predecessors, Sister Christensen said she can trace God's hand in their callings and effort.
"We have definitely felt angels around us, holding us up and supporting us," she said.
The art missionaries are a team of painters and sculptors who specialize in a variety of media. They come to the studio from homes as far away as Idaho or Nephi, Utah. Those who live near fellow art missionaries often carpool to offset fuel costs.
Working under Sister Christensen's direction, the art missionaries have accepted a variety of responsibilities, from the actual painting duties to mixing colors, cleaning up and documenting their work. Sister Christensen's husband, Greg Christensen, has also contributed by building huge rolling easels that can accommodate the massive murals.
Egos are left outside the studio door and each painting session begins with prayer and a devotional.
"When we serve and give of our times and talent, we have been paid back with an abundance of blessings," Sister Christensen said.
The art missionaries are close to finishing their Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple project. Once completed, the murals will be carefully rolled onto spools, placed inside large tubes and transported to the temple. Brother Christensen will be involved in the installation and the missionaries will perform any needed, on-site touch-ups on the murals.
Sister Christensen said the missionaries will then move on to artwork destined for the other temples. Her fellow art missionaries call the temple projects the highlight of their illustrious careers.
"This has been so incredible — I can't talk about it without getting teary," said Carol Jackman, a sculptor and painter from Provo, Utah. "To be able to use our talents for something like this has been a gift for us."
Richard Miles is a landscape and wildlife painter from Fruit Heights, Utah. He has enjoyed the camaraderie that has developed among the missionaries as they have crafted the murals. "Art is normally an individual thing, but here there's a lot of team spirit."
Sister Christensen said that first generation of art missionaries had it tough. They lived a Spartan existence in Paris and polished their skills far from their families and homes. "They paid a price; their sacrifice was huge," she said.
Still, she feels humbled to have been asked to continue their work and effort. She is grateful another generation of art missionaries' talents will enrich and deepen the experience of future temple visitors.