A Look Back … New Murals Honor Original Artists
“We felt the spirit of the temple every night,” Linda Christensen said of the pioneer era painters. “Those from the other side of the veil were there. We felt their help and support, and protection. There are those on the other side of the veil who were very interested in the restoration of this temple.”
Linda Christensen, who was born in Idaho and grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, had no formal training at art school but loved to paint. By chance, she met Lee Gray, the senior architect and the design team for the Church. At the time, the team was in the planning stages of choosing artwork for the soon-to-be-built Conference Center. In the course of her conversation with Gray, it was discovered that Linda was an artist. Intrigued, he asked to see her portfolio. “I find it no coincidence to find you here,” Gray said. Linda was then invited to paint for the Church full-time, starting with the Conference Center.
Restoration of the murals in the Mesa Arizona Temple was significant. Although Linda had worked on nearly 30 temples, this would be her largest project. A team of art restorationists set up shop in Mesa before the temple closed for the renovation. For three months, they arrived at the temple at 10 p.m., working until 4:30 in the morning, matching paints and preparing for the restoration project of the murals.
After careful examination and many hours of labor, it was determined that saving the historical murals painted on burlap was impossible as they had significantly deteriorated due to heat and moisture. Contacting her superiors, Linda asked what direction she and her team should go. For months, they waited to hear back as the temple department, the art committee, and the general contractors discussed the dilemma. Then the reply came, all new murals were requested in some areas.
The baptistry and grand staircase feature murals that are original to the temple. These murals were cleaned and repaired by Parma Conservation. The baptistry murals were painted by J. Leo Fairbanks with assistance from his father and his brother. They include a depiction of the baptism and confirmation of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery at the Susquehanna River.
The original murals at the top of the grand staircase were painted by Lee Greene Richards and depicts Joseph Smith preaching to the Native Americans and the baptism of Native Americans.
The new team hoped to stay in harmony with the original artist’s work. A photograph of Norwegian-born Latter-day Saint artist Frithjof Weberg standing on scaffolding as he creates the mural for the Creation Room survived. A similar photo was taken as Linda worked to recreate the original artist’s work, down to the detail of painting a palm branch and in the exact location of Weberg’s.
A framed section of Weberg’s original mural from the Garden Room was preserved and is hanging on the wall in the basement of the temple.
Three years were needed to complete the Mesa Arizona Temple murals, which were all done in Wallsburg, Utah, and painted on linen. When completed, the murals were shipped in a climate-controlled truck to Mesa, where Linda and her team of eighteen did the installation, which took six weeks.
Through their time, the artists felt close to the original painters and appreciated their sacrifice as they painted through the Arizona summer to finish the murals.
“Many had tough times,” Linda Christensen said of these pioneer era painters. She continued, “We felt the spirit of the temple every night. Those from the other side of the veil were there. We felt their help and support, and protection. There are those on the other side of the veil who were very interested in the restoration of this temple.”