Up Close: Utah Artist Honors Fallen Missionaries With Portraits

Sep 18, 2019, 10:24 PM | Updated: 10:26 pm

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.

KSL 5 TV Live

Up Close

(Becky Hansen, Smile Creations Portrait Studio, St. George, Utah)...

Angie Denison

Up Close with Shawn Bradley

Last year, NBA legend Shawn Bradley was hit by a car while riding his bicycle in St. George. The accident left him paralyzed from the shoulders down. In an exclusive visit, KSL returns to the crash site with Shawn and his wife.

1 year ago

(KSL TV)...

Dan Rascon, KSL TV

Up Close: Girls Wrestling Booming In Utah

Once a real shocker in high school sports, girls wrestling has becoming one of the most popular growing sports in the country. That’s why the season may be over but practice continues for many girls.

4 years ago

Albee Bostrom and Sissy McDade turned their love of thrift store shopping into a business: Thrift H...

Dan Rascon, KSL TV

Up Close: Young Entrepreneurs Turn Thrift Store Shopping Into Full-Time Business

A simple hobby of thrift store shopping has turned into a full-time business for a couple of young entrepreneurs in Utah County. They’ve now opened up their very own unique thrift store with a flash to the past. We are talking about the 1980s and 1990s era.

4 years ago

Courtney Kimball and her sister Kym Frey help women living in the slums of San Pedro Sula, Honduras...

Dan Rascon, KSL TV

Up Close: ‘One Common Thread’ Organization Helping Women In Poverty

Two Utah sisters - one now living in one of the most dangerous cities in the world - are helping to bring women out of poverty by teaching them a skill that’s giving them new hope.

4 years ago

A BYU project called the "Rheumatic Relief" project is helping to heal children's hearts and save h...

Dan Rascon, KSL TV

Up Close: BYU Project Tests Samoan Children For Heart Conditions

A BYU project tests Samoan children for heart conditions, helping to heal damaged hearts and save hundreds of lives.

4 years ago


Dan Rascon, KSL TV

Up Close: West Jordan Girl Sings Her Way Into National Spotlight

An eight-year-old girl from West Jordan has won an incredible award. She became the Grand Champion Vocalist of the year in the 25th annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in San Antonio, Texas.

4 years ago

Sponsored Articles

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Users display warnings about the use of artificial intelligence (AI), access to malicious software ...

Les Olson

How to Stay Safe from Cybersecurity Threats

Read our tips for reading for how to respond to rising cybersecurity threats in 2023 and beyond to keep yourself and your company safe.

Up Close: Utah Artist Honors Fallen Missionaries With Portraits