Leon Parson, an art professor at BYU-Idaho and acclaimed painter for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he deviated from his plans when he applied to teach at Ricks College and to work for the Church 37 years ago, but he has seen rich blessings as a result.
“Painting anything for the Church, to help build the kingdom, is a wonderful privilege and honor and is always rewarding and, at the same time, extremely difficult to be sure,” Parson said.
Parson has original artwork in several LDS temples around the world.
He said some of these framed oil paintings are found in the Vancouver British Columbia, Gila Valley Arizona, Laie Hawaii, San Salvador San Salvador, Calgary Alberta and Manaus Brazil temples.
Parson has also painted murals in the Rexburg, Twin Falls Idaho, and Calgary Alberta temples.
“I am currently painting the mural for the Rome Italy Temple,” Parson said.
He said he has painted portraits of general authorities in buildings on campus as well as the portrait of President David W. Pershing for the University of Utah and a portrait of President Cecil O. Samuelson for BYU, a recent project unveiled at BYU, Feb. 22.
“I have also painted eight portraits of members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the Salt Lake City Conference Center and President Thomas S. Monson, which is hanging in the Joseph Smith Building,” Parson said.
Parson said his artistic abilities go back to his childhood.
“I did my first oil painting at age 8,” Parson said.
Parson said he and his eight siblings were raised in an artistically inclined home.
“In 1953, President John L. Clark invited my father to come to Ricks College and begin developing an art department,” Parson said. “At the time, we lived in Springville, Utah, where he was teaching art at the Springville Junior High, and he was also serving simultaneously as the curator for the Springville Art Museum.”
Despite his upbringing and early exposure to art, Parson said he had plans to do other things with his education.
“From junior high through high school, including my first year at Ricks College and until I came home from my mission, I was a serious biology major,” Parson said.
Parson said that just before returning from his mission, he took the opportunity to pray and ask Heavenly Father for direction for his future and career.
Parson said he felt prompted to work as an artist and work for the church.
Parson said that in order to prepare himself for a career in art, he returned to Ricks College, where he would later meet his wife of now 42 years, Kathryn, in an art class and complete his associate’s degree before moving on to the Art Center College of Design.
“As a freshman at art school, in Los Angeles, California, my wife and I had some sacred experiences in the temple there relative to teaching at Ricks College,” Parson said.
Parson said when he then applied for a position at Ricks College, although he had other goals, including being a famous illustrator in New York.
“Five years later, when I accepted the position to teach at Ricks College, it was with faith that someday I would recognize it as a blessing,” Parson said.
Parson said that now, 43 years later, with 37 years of teaching and nine to 10 years of making artwork for the Church under his belt, he is grateful.
“At this point in my life, I clearly see that is exactly what spending the last 37 years of my life here has been— one of the greatest blessings of my mortal existence — I am truly grateful for it,” Parson said.
Emily Long, a senior studying art education, said she is in a painting class with Parson, and she admires that he constantly relates art back to the gospel.
“He taught us that in order to receive inspiration for our art, we need to be worthy of the Spirit,” Long said. “Just from the way that he talks, I can tell that he has a close relationship with God and a great admiration for things that Heavenly Father and Christ have made.”
Long said the art program is the way it is, in part, because Parson has been teaching here for as long as he has.
“He has a great love for art and teaching,” she said. “All the art students I know always want to take a class from him.”
Parson said his favorite medium is oil paint, though he has worked with several other paint mediums.
“I believe what inspires me most is the beauty of this earth,” Parson said. “I particularly enjoy seeing variations of light on virtually everything and enjoy the challenge of trying to create an illusion of it in art.”
Parson, among his several achievements and projects in the Church, is also one of the top wildlife artists in the world, according to the BYU-I Faculty Web page.
“As a wildlife illustrator, I have painted over 100 covers of magazine, books, periodicals, etc.,” Parson said. “I have also been a signature member of the Society of Animal Artists, an international art guild of animal artists, for over 25 years.”
Parson said he feels art is a means of communication on all levels: intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
“Intellectual communication, to the mind, is relatively easy to achieve,” Parson said. “Emotional communication, to the heart, is usually quite difficult and requires a great deal of training and effort, and, finally, spiritual communication, to the soul, which cannot be done without the assistance of the Spirit of the Lord.”