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Up Close: Utah Artist Honors Fallen Missionaries With Portraits

HUNTSVILLE, Utah – At 76 years old, JR Johansen said he has finally found his calling in life by painting portraits of missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who passed away while serving.

This is therapy if there was ever therapy for me, JR said. Some people say it’s a real service; I just enjoy doing it, so if it’s a service, it’s a fun service.

JR set up a rustic studio in the backyard of his Weber County home where he paints the portraits for the missionary’s family members.

Out on the open roads of northern Utah, the Willis family is often found traveling from Arizona to Idaho. But KSL caught up with them as they made a detour to the small town of Huntsville for a very special reason.

Angie Willis younger sister Melissa Peterson was killed in a car crash while serving as a missionary in North Carolina 20 years ago.

Now, in a way, Angie gets to see her again. Im so happy to meet you, Angie said as she met JR for the first time in person. “This is emotional.”

JR had wrapped the portrait, which was sitting right in front of his studio. Angie slowly ripped the paper off with much anticipation.

Oh my gosh, she said through her tears. Thats her.

Sister Peterson, a young missionary whose life was cut short just weeks before coming home, was brought back to life on canvas.

This is how we think of her. This is how we remember her, Angie said.

JR is a Vietnam veteran who suffers from health issues related to his exposure to Agent Orange.

I can’t do a lot of service projects that require physical strength or stamina, but I can sit here and put oxygen on my face and paint and love every minute of it, he said.

He said Angie’s reaction is why he does what he does.

But she wasn’t the only visitor for JR. A short time later, the Bailey family arrived.

Kathleen came to see her mother’s portrait. Nellie Leighton was a 100-year-old missionary at the Church’s Family History Library. She was survived the deadly shooting inside the Family History Library 20 years ago.

The shooter came in and she was at the desk and he shot her point-blank. Went in here and out this side, said Kathleen as she pointed to her cheek. 

But that didnt stop her from still showing up to volunteer. She loved life, she loved to laugh,” Kathleen said.

Two families walked away with priceless gifts – portraits bringing to live a loved one who died while serving, painted by a man who never thought he would be bringing joy in such a way.

Never in my wildest dreams that I would have ever imagined that I would be doing this,” JR said. “It just kind of fell into my lap and what a package that was.”

So far JR has completed 84 paintings free of charge and he said hes anxious to do many more.

If there is anyone out there who has lost a loved one in a similar situation, JR said he wants to hear from you.

You can call Cindy Thredgold at 801-400-0168 or JR said you can also call him at 385-244-7027.

Next month, hes planning a missionary reunion for all the families that hes painted over the years.

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