Huntsville portrait artist JR Johansen finds healing in late missionaries project

Saturday , August 19, 2017 - 12:00 AM

JANAE FRANCIS, Standard-Examiner Staff

HUNTSVILLE — At 72, JR Johansen believes he recently found his life’s purpose.

The artist took on a pastel project to create portraits of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who died during their service.

With damaged lungs, heart and spirit from years of problems associated with his U.S. Army service in the Vietnam War, Johansen said he’s sure this effort is healing his body and easing his traumatic memories.

“It’s given me a purpose,” he said. “I was supposed to have died almost two years ago. In many ways, I think I am getting better. Positive thinking goes a long way toward healing.”

Not only is he feeling better than before he found his passion in portraiture, but his spirit is improving too, he said.

“I had to have something that would connect me with more heavenly things,” he said. “When I see the joy of families, it somehow replaces all that I experienced in war.”

The project came about naturally, Johansen said.

Two years ago, Johansen created a portrait of the late Elder Mason Bailey of Richfield and the artwork was part of his display in a juried exhibition at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building Christmas Art Show.

That’s when he met Cindi Thredgold, the mother of the late Elder Connor Thredgold, a missionary from Springville who died in 2014, of carbon monoxide poisoning while serving in Taiwan. Thredgold already researched and found 577 missionaries who died in service, dating back to the founding of the church.

Her findings are published at momonamission2017.

Meeting her put him on his quest, he said. He wants to paint as many portraits of late missionaries as he can. 

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Johansen said his goal is for the portraits to give grieving families a way to stay close to their lost loved ones.

“Those who have been able to come to grips with it, they are happy and can go on with life,” Johansen said. “Especially if they have a child’s portrait or photo or something prominently displayed in their home.”

Family members who have received the latest portraits said they are honored to have them and that they have found healing through Johansen’s work.

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“I just can’t even describe the feelings I get when I look at the portrait of Jason. A lot of times, that’s all I have left are just pictures,” said Janis Wiberg of Roy, mother of Elder Jason Wiberg, who died Aug. 25, 2013, following an vehicle accident. “I know where he is and his is happy. JR caught that in the painting.”

Reid Wiberg, Janis’ husband, said he sees the portrait as a symbol of what sacrifice means.

“When I look at that picture, I think of others who have made sacrifices and who have passed away,” said he said, naming other missionaries and those who served in the armed forces. 

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“When you go through something really hard, it’s nice when people realize that,” said Nicole Scadlock of West Haven.

Her daughter, Sister Brittany Scadlock, died March 11, 2015, while serving her mission in Chlorinda, Argentina, from complications after she contracted E-coli poisoning.

“It is beautiful,” said Scadlock. “It hangs in my family room. I smile when I see it.”

• RELATED: Deceased LDS missionary hailed for example she set

Johansen is planning to gather families of late missionaries around the portraits. The event is set for Sept. 15 at This is the Place Heritage Park.

Scadlock said she is excited for the event.

“It’s nice when you can associate with people who know what you are going through — not think that they know what you are going through, but know what you are going through,” she said.

Janis Wiberg remembers going to the funeral of Connor Thredgold and meeting his mother.

“I think it helped us more than it helped her,” she said. “Talking to the other families, giving them the strength they need is important. It comes and goes. Some days are good and others are not.”

Johansen said he’s a quiet person who likes to avoid the spotlight, but he feels passionate about contacting as many families of deceased missionaries as he can to offer his services.

“This is a good opportunity for someone who knows someone to contact me,” he said. 

For more information about the upcoming meeting of families who have lost missionaries or to forward information about a family who has lost a missionary, call Johansen at 385-244-7027. 

You may reach reporter JaNae Francis at or 801-625-4228. Follow her on Twitter at @JaNaeFrancisSE or like her on Facebook at 

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