“I don’t like to travel to places where I can’t walk home,” said Leon Parson an art professor at BYU-Idaho.
Parson confronted that fear when he traveled to Italy to photograph the landscape so he could paint it truthfully. He is the painter of the mural in the new Rome Italy Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The temple will be dedicated this Sunday, March 10.
The Church of Jesus Christ has commissioned Parson several times to paint murals in temples. He has painted murals in the Rexburg, Twin Falls, Calgary Alberta, and Rome Italy temples.
In order to paint a mural in a temple you put forth a proposal and a mockup of what you would like to paint. The application goes through three different committees, the last of which is the First Presidency of the Church.
When Parson put in his proposal to paint the mural for the Rome temple, he originally wanted to paint the Piedmont Valley and the Alps.
A student he was instructing who was from Italy, changed his mind. His student reminded him that the majority of Italy is coastline and beaches. Parson decided to pursue that landscape style instead.
Out of all of the artists who submitted their ideas Parson was the only one who painted the coast, everyone else painted the Alps. As a result he was chosen to paint the mural.
He took thousands of pictures and had friends and acquaintances take thousands of more photos for him. He wanted the painting to be a true likeness of the Italian coast.
Painting a mural for a temple is no easy feat. It’s much larger than the typical magazine spread or even commercial painting. The mural in the Rome temple is 11 feet high and 90 feet long.
Over all the project took him eight years to complete.
“When I came home from the hospital, I came to a house full of turpentine and statues,” said Parson.
“Since I’ve been on the planet I’ve been surrounded by art,” Parson said.
At eight years old, he received his first oil paint set for Christmas.
His father was an artist and started the Art Department at Ricks College. Although Parson started art early in life, being an artist wasn’t his initial career plan. He started out as a biology major at Ricks College before his mission for the LDS Church.
“I had an experience just before I came home from my mission, in prayer. I felt strongly directed to go to art and work for the Church,” Parson said.
He thought that meant graphic design. He returned to Ricks College and changed his major to graphic design. He soon realized the straight lines weren’t for him. He was more interested in 3 dimension illusions.
He finished his bachelor’s degree at the Art Center College of Design in southern California. It took him seven years to get his degree in fine arts.
During his last year of college, he did freelance work for wildlife magazines. He was trained to paint and draw people but his work for the magazines led him to realize his heart was in painting wildlife, particularly big game.
At the end of his college experience he once again felt spiritually directed. This time he felt he should pursue a career in teaching art.
“I was set to go to New York and be an illustrator,” Parson said.
He didn’t want to teach. But five years after that initial prompting he applied to Ricks College and has been teaching art at the school ever since, which adds up to 40 years.
“Teaching art has been and is, other than the plan of salvation and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and my wife, the greatest blessing in my life,” Parson explained.
He said he would not be the person he is now if he had not pursued art and the teaching of it.
“I didn’t know I loved art,” he said. “I thought I was doing it just as a job and I did that until two and a half years ago. I was teaching a painting class and I was giving a presentation and I said, ‘And I love…’ and I caught myself. And I said ‘Okay class, this is a historic moment. I have never ever said this nor known it, but I just realized that I actually love art.’ It was an epiphany to me.”
He said his love of art was always inside of him, it just took 55 years of creating it to unearth that understanding. He said he loves it because he can see the art that Christ created in this world and appreciate it and then paint the emotional response he feels when he sees it.