Lyric soprano Angela Johnson went about as far as she could go professionally with her voice in more than a quarter century of performing.
“In my late 30s, there came a point where the frustration of really being able to reach the pinnacle of my goal was too much for me,” she said. “It was right at that moment that I shut the lid to the piano, went to the art store, bought a block of water-based clay and sculpting tools, and four hours later there was a portraitsize of a little girl in pain on my kitchen table.”
Hands that had danced across ivories and motioned artfully as she sang arias could mold clay into works of art that defied explanation.
“My hands had an intelligence I never saw before, as if they already knew what to do,” she said.
A decade later, 15 of her sculptures form an exhibit, “The Healing Power of Jesus Christ,” on display through April 16 at the Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors Center. Thousands are expected to pass by the works while attending the annual temple Easter pageant in the coming weeks. In bronze and clay, the sculptures exude intense facial expressions of Christ and those he encountered. Johnson has founded the I Am the Light of the World Foundation to further her sculpture ministry and es- tablish a sculpture garden with many of her works.
A centerpiece is a life-size sculpture of Christ — her son Mark modeled for it — that was completed in five weeks for a new church temple in 2005 in Newport Beach, Calif. In that piece, “Come Unto Me,” and others, Johnson painstakingly imparts action and movement in the limbs, faces and garments.
The middle of nine children growing up in a dairy farm outside Columbia Falls, Mont., Johnson recalled how her mother listened to opera on the stereo and the long-running Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on National Public Radio on Saturdays.
“I just heard those beautiful voices and really wanted to be part of that. To me, it sounded like power and freedom,” said Johnson, who began voice lessons at 13 and would have more than 15 vocal coaches.
“I studied fastidiously every day of my life,” she said, noting that she has sung widely from private recitals to educational settings to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. She also studied theater and music at Brigham Young University, where she met her husband of 31 years, Kenneth, an engineer with General Dynamics. They have four children ages 22 to 30. They lived briefly in California before moving to Mesa, Kenneth Johnson said.
They now live in Gilbert, where Angela’s studio is the island of their kitchen.
“We get the natural lighting from the window,” she said. “We have tall ceilings, our children aren’t home, and I have plenty of area to cook” and mold art, she said. But with a growing number of commissioned works scheduled, a studio may be in her future. Among her more than 50 works to date is one of father-son baseball greats Barry and Bobby Bonds, which is now in Barry Bonds’ home.
“I am just a tremendous admirer of her,” said Sally Johnson of Mesa, who purchased the elaborate work, “Free to Choose,” and donated it back to the foundation (www.iamthelightoftheworld.org) for the exhibit. “I have watched how she had become recognized.”
Sally Johnson, who is a member of the foundation’s board but not related to Angela, recalls how a friend insisted she “go down and see that person’s work” about four years ago. “I have just been awed by her talent and her spiritual expression,” she said.
Recently Johnson returned from India as a volunteer for Rising Star Outreach. At the Bindu Art School, a lepers colony, she taught sculpting to 23 adults. In some cases, the disease has so ravaged their hands they have to strap art tools to their stubs. “It was an extremely emotional thing,” Johnson said, noting that she wants to return to India to further that work.
“Many people think I switched from singing to sculpting and let the singing drop,” she said. “But I really believe that talents are gifts from God, and we have a responsibility to him.” Johnson said she could have “let my voice just die” in a matter of weeks without practice. Now, she continues to train and sing, but no longer on an aggressive schedule.
A year into her sculpting came her first commission, from Dallas and Julie Petersen of Mesa, to sculpt a bronze bust of one of Julie’s great-grandmothers. Petersen, who delighted in Johnson’s singing going back about 14 years, said she was amazed at how quickly Johnson’s sculpting developed.
“I feel like she has a connection with the Savior because she has so much love in the characters and Bible stories,” Petersen said. “She knows them, and … she brings them out in her sculptures.”
In her works of healing, Johnson draws from dark experience of being abused as a child. “When you know darkness, no one in their right mind would stay there,” she said. So, she said, “the light of Christ” brought transformation to her life.
“True healing comes from him,” she said. “I think the world is full of people in a lot of pain.” It means more, she said “when someone speaks from personal experience.”
One of her sculptures, “Because of Love” depicts Christ dragging his cross. Johnson said she struggled at setting the cross permanently onto the shoulder of Christ. “But to be able to take all of my pain and give it to him helped free me up from carrying that pain myself.”
She hopes people behold her work, feel the love of God and see that “the magnitude of our potential is far greater than most people ever reach or know.”
‘The Healing Power of Jesus Christ’
When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through April 16
Where: Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors Center, 525 E. Main St.
Information: (480) 964-7164