Interview conducted by Scott Samuelson, English Department
Scott: Leon, we admire your murals in the Rexburg Temple, especially as they portray scenery of the region. Was painting the murals a spiritual experience for you?
Leon: Yes, I had some very special and tender moments. One of the primary purposes of all art is communication. That communication exists on three basic levels: mental, emotional, and spiritual, or in other words, head, heart, and soul.
Spiritual communication is by far the most difficult as it requires that the first two levels be well established, and then the Spirit must touch the soul of the viewer. Spiritual art requires painting with the assistance of the Spirit.
Scott: Did you find yourself living at a higher spiritual plane because you knew you were trying to communicate spiritual truth in your art?
Leon: Yes, I made a commitment to attend the temple once each week, and I worked on improving my habits of studio cleanliness. Sometimes I would stop and take half a day just to clean up. (It’s a big place, and the murals are huge). I cleaned everything spic-and-span, swept up the dead flies, and even vacuumed all the little cracks in the cement. After I was finished, it always felt good again. I consciously tried to create an environment that would invite the Spirit to be present.
However, I also had to contend with the fallen nature of man — the tendency of self-sufficiency. I have learned this lesson before, and, unfortunately, I had to learn it again. My own nature, perhaps the adversary, would periodically say to me, “You’re getting pretty good.” My heart would then invite pride. The next thing I knew, I was on my own. I would have to stop, ask for forgiveness, and then start over. Sometimes it seemed as if I was on my own for a week or more — it was awful.
Scott: Did you feel called to do these paintings?
Leon: “Calling” isn’t the exact word I would use. It was deeper than that and much more personal. The announcement of the Rexburg Temple was made in December 2003. Just a few weeks later I was visiting with someone on the Temple Art Committee, and he said, “You know, you should send in a proposal to do the Rexburg murals.”
A few weeks after the announcement, my name was “on the list” to be invited when the time came for proposals. But a year went by, and I heard nothing. When spring came, I was informed that the Church needed a proposal by the end of summer. So in 2005, I started taking photos and preparing concepts. But I never heard back.
Then on Jan. 9, 2006, a call came from the designer for the Rexburg Temple. He asked if I would be interested in submitting a proposal and said I needed to do so by January 31 — just nineteen working days! There were also three other artists competing.
One of the interesting things is that with all of the preparation and photos I’d taken, I didn’t use any of them. My original idea had been a panorama as if you were sitting in the temple looking all around you. But then I started thinking, “That’s not the whole temple district. It goes all the way to the Montana border and clear to Jackson, Wyo.” The panorama became the whole Rexburg Temple district. So for people from all over the area, it will feel familiar. Part of the familiarity is the spirit of the temple, but part of it is because different sections of the murals are from areas throughout the entire temple district — in all four directions.
Scott: Was it hard to start? What did you learn artistically from doing this project?
Leon: I went into it feeling it could be done, but also knowing why. I felt buoyed up by the Spirit and recognized it. Acknowledging where the strength was coming from, I was able to start without the expected fear and trepidation that one would normally have.
Artistically, I remember being impressed with the thought, “The murals are so big; you need to keep the edges soft so it won’t be overpowering.” Every time I painted an area, I went back over it and softened the edges. There were also times I had to leave some hard-focused edges to balance the soft edges. I remember one area I kept wanting to soften, but then I would have the thought, “No, don’t do it. Don’t touch it.” I fought the urge to adjust it for over a week until it dried. Now, I realize that it does exactly what it needs to do. It becomes an accent of intensity, of saturated color, and also a really hard edge. My brain absolutely didn’t want it to be there, but the Spirit did. I’m glad I listened.
Scott: Did you ever get discouraged?
Leon: Yes. Occasionally I had long periods of discouragement. Sometimes it was for days, sometimes weeks.
Scott: And you painted through that?
Leon: I had to. I would just keep painting and then fix things later. There were weird, discouraging things. For example, I went to my file and found an image of a whitetail deer and a fawn. I wanted to use it, but I didn’t have copyright permission. There was no name listed with the photo, but I eventually found the photographer. He was in Kansas City, and worked for the state Fish and Game Department. He sent a cheerful e-mail and mentioned, “I understand it’s for some public building.” I said that it was for an LDS temple. Communication stopped. The spot where the two deer were to be painted remained white for a long, long time.
Eventually I was able to contact a photographer on the East Coast who sent me some images of whitetail deer, which solved the problem. Now, not only is the finished mural legal, but there are two fawns with the doe, not one, and their body postures are more exciting. It’s just so much better. But the process took a full year! That’s a long time to carry discouragement around. When it was finally finished, I had sincere gratitude and acknowledged that the Lord had stepped in and solved the problem.
Scott: Are you the kind of person who depends on a regular schedule? Or is it more like, “If the muse of painting is with me, I’m going to work three extra hours today?”
Leon: I’m not the type of artist who, at 2:00 a.m., wakes up and says, “I’ve just had this thought, this feeling, and I’ve got to go paint it.” I’m the type of artist who says, “Creating art takes work; now get up and go to work.” I was working most mornings by 8:00 a.m., whether on the computer, photographing more images, painting at the mural site, or going through my photos again. I didn’t stop for lunch at noon and come back at 1:00 either. At 10:30 or 11:00 I’d break out my peanut butter and honey, make a sandwich, and munch on potato chips and carrots. As I did so I sat and analyzed the areas I had been working on. Then I would get back on the scaffold and keep painting. I ate a lot of peanut butter and carrots. I’m really tired of carrots.
Scott: Artists sometimes need friends or colleagues to give feedback. Did you get that on the temple murals?
Leon: I had to get permission for anyone to see my work. I received permission for and took my wife and children because they are my artistic “sounding boards.” My wife is a great critic. She is direct with her criticism, and that’s wonderful. My brother Nolan helped quite a bit also, and my brother-in-law, Dale McPherson, was also very helpful. All of the critiques gave me incentive to keep going.
Scott: How will doing the temple paintings affect your future as an artist? It must be a happy chapter in your artistic career. When you’re eighty years old and write the Leon Parson personal history, do you think painting the temple murals will be the peak, the pinnacle?
Leon: It has been a wonderful chapter in my life, for certain, and I’ve asked myself and my wife similar questions: What will become of me? What will I paint? What will my art look like? But as far as this being the peak or pinnacle — I hope not. In and of myself, I realize, I don’t paint that well — I was greatly assisted. I still have much more to learn.