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Greg Olsen

Art Can Help Us Feel Closer to the Savior

Thank you, Arthur, for that wonderful music. It’s a pleasure to be here today. I appreciate the invitation. I have to confess, though, that I’m experiencing a little bit of déjà vu. It was roughly 20 years ago that I stood at this same pulpit and spoke before a similar audience. They were a little bit younger—it was a group of youth from Southern California that came here, and I’d been asked to give a presentation. And I was quite nervous on that day. There were actually some general authorities they had arranged to speak, and so I was very intimidated.

      I came early and had one of the audiovisual people help me set up a projector, and in those days, I used a carousel slide projector and a tree of slides to show images of my work. It came my turn to speak, and they dimmed the lights, and they gave me a remote control something like this, and I pushed the button, and the first slide was projected on a screen behind me just like this. But I heard a big gasp go through the audience. And it wasn’t exactly the reaction that I was hoping for. And so I remember turning around and looking, and instead of a picture of one of my paintings, which I’d planned for, it was this giant picture of my wife.

      She’s not giant, but she… [laughter]…was in her swimming suit. And now it’s kind of funny, and “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,” but my wife happened to be out in the audience, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a slow-motion train wreck, but this is about what it was like. She just shot out of her seat and, “Bleaaaaaa!” I grabbed the remote and started pushing buttons, and more pictures of her in her swimming suit started flashing up. And we quickly killed the power and soon discovered that in my anxiety and haste to get here, I had grabbed the wrong carousel of slides. And instead of pictures of my paintings, it was my family vacation slides from the beach. So, I think today, President, we have the right set of images. We’ll hope so. It was a real dog-and-pony show that day. We ran to the Church Office Building and borrowed some slides they had, we ran to Deseret Book and grabbed little 8x10 pictures and passed them around the audience. It was a fiasco. But anyway, so if I’m a little unnerved standing here, that’s why.

      Usually when I’m asked to speak, I’m asked not to bring my family vacation slides, but to talk a little bit about some of the work I’ve created over the years having to do with the Savior. And that’s a very difficult task. I feel very unqualified. I only have physical, earthly materials to work with to try to capture something that goes far beyond that. So, one little disclaimer I would put out there today is that you simply cut me a little bit of slack, and realize that I’m only human, and what I’m creating are basically visual reminders of the Savior. You already have in your heart and mind your own personal image of what He’s like, and I would ask that you try to hang on to that, and that you just use these as reminders, maybe a springboard to think about Him in your own unique and special way.

      It’s such a daunting task that for years I actually avoided painting representations of the Savior. I would do maybe the baby Jesus, or Jesus 200 yards away…but to create something like this portrait, per se, was really terrifying for me. That changed a little bit several years ago when I had the chance to visit with President Boyd K. Packer, who is quite an artist himself, if any of you are familiar with his work, in addition to being a great spiritual teacher. I had the opportunity to visit with him in his office on an unrelated matter, a different painting I was working on. And he asked me as I was leaving his office if I had ever tried to create a portrait per se representing Jesus. And I told him my fears and anxieties and why I really hadn’t done that. And he said, “Let me offer you a couple of suggestions,” a couple of ingredients is the way he put it, that might be helpful as an artist who is trying to create a representation of the Savior. So I was really interested to hear what he had to say.

      The first ingredient that he suggested is that we try to portray Him as someone who was manly. That made sense to me. We talked about some of the images that we as artists have created over the years that maybe haven’t been so manly; maybe we’re trying to show what meek and lowly looks like. Sometimes He comes across as perhaps less than manly [in these portraits]. So, I could relate to that and I felt that ingredient of manliness showing someone who could be a role model to us as men would be a good idea.

      The second ingredient that he offered kind of took me by surprise at first. He said that we should also portray Him as someone who is simply ordinary, simply ordinary. My first reaction was, “President Packer, this is the Son of God. That’s pretty extraordinary as far as I understand.” And it wasn’t until he went on to explain that I understood and then actually starting to think of that as a very endearing ingredient. He talked about how Jesus came to mortality to experience Earth life just like we do.

            This piece represents Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth when He begins his ministry, and he was actually reading a passage in Isaiah that prophesied of the coming of the Messiah. And then, He did something which outraged his friends and neighbors there. He basically declared Himself as the fulfillment of this prophecy. Apparently to His friends and neighbors, Jesus did, at least physically, appear as someone who is quite ordinary; a man of the neighborhood, because they couldn’t conceive of this person standing in front of them as being the Messiah. And they actually chased Him from the synagogue, tried to take His life, and He never again returned to His home   town. Which way do I point this? There we go.

And you think of what a difference it would have made in the lives of those people in Nazareth had they been able to see beyond his ordinariness, and realize that this was indeed the Son of God. Sometimes our own images of Him can affect the way we have a relationship with Him. And that’s sort of been my experience over the years. One thing about creating these images is you can’t help at least to think about Him. And some of those experiences have caused me to have a…to develop a different relationship than I started out with, with the Savior. I realize that what was so extraordinary about Him is not what color were His eyes, or how long was His hair, or how Jewish did He look, or were His robes gleaming white, and all of that kind of stuff. It was what was inside of Him that made Him so extraordinary. And I think part of His mission is to help us find that extraordinary part inside of us, to uncover that, peel away the layers and come to know who we really are, and the things that we share in common with the Savior. . . .

      So from that time forward a little bit of a burden was lifted, and I stopped worrying about some of the physical attributes, and I tried to simply paint my feelings about the Savior. In this case I was trying to show some symbol of how great His capacity was to know each one of us, to love us, and to be aware of us.

      The scriptures tell us that not a single sparrow falls without the Savior taking note (Matthew 10:29-31). And if that’s true, and that’s certainly beyond my comprehension, because there must be billions of sparrows, and yet somehow, he knows them all. If that’s true, then He certainly knows who you and I are. He knows your name. He can probably even pronounce it, President. No matter where we’re from. He knows what our day’s been like today. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows our trials and our failures. He knows us better than we know ourselves. We have a veil drawn across our minds; that’s not something that limits the Savior. So He knows what we’re made of, really to the core. And in some spiritual way, He can help uncover that.

      He really is the Good Shepherd. I grew up on a sheep farm in Idaho, and we were great little sheepherders, but it wasn’t until I went to Israel with my wife that for the first time I saw a shepherd, and it was a whole different ball game. Here was one man out in front of a whole herd of sheep and they would follow him wherever he went. He seemed to have names for them all and little calls he would make, and the sheep recognized it. He really is the Good Shepherd; He’s not the Good Sheepherder. He’s there to bless us in those difficult times in our life.

      This piece is called “Be Not Afraid.” Originally when I conceived of this piece I thought of it more as the Savior helping a couple, maybe a man and wife, across this stream, which represents the difficult, trying times in our lives. Our job is to kind of reach up and take His hand, and He can lead us safely to the other side.

      This is a piece where I simply wanted to show kind of the quality of love that the Savior has for us. He often tells us to become as a little child, and children have certain attributes that would be good for us to emulate. When I do a piece that involves the Savior, I actually get models and costumes and props. Over the years I’ve used maybe nine or ten different models as kind of a starting point, an ‘anatomical armature’ I call it for the figure of the Savior. And on this occasion, I had a man come to my studio, and he was posing. And I knew I wanted a little child by his side, but I hadn’t found just the right one yet. So my thought was, when I do find him I’ll dub him in after the fact. Well, partway through this modeling session this man’s wife came by the studio. And she brought with her their young son. So we took a time out, and I remember watching this little boy run over to his dad, who was in costume like this, lean on his knee and he looked up at his dad, he goes, “Dad! What are you doing? And why are you all dressed up like this?”

      And his dad just instinctively put his arm around his young son and started to explain to him what it was that we were trying to create. It was kind of like the Spirit tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Duh.” And I kind of got the hint and I grabbed my camera, and I took a series of photographs of what was actually a father and a son. And I thought how lucky I was to capture something that was so natural. They had this great rapport. It would have been almost impossible to bring a young stranger in and say, “Could you give me a look of love and admiration?” It just wouldn’t happen.

      But it’s been a great reminder to me that when we speak of our relationship with the Savior, with Heavenly Father, we’re talking about a family relationship. And there’s something that ought to give us confidence in just that fact; knowing that they love us. Those of us that are parents, those of us who have families, we know that kind of unconditional love that’s there. We ought to remind ourselves of that a little more often. Be like these little children who don’t question, who just accept love and give love so naturally. Sometimes we don’t feel so lovable.

      In this piece I like to imagine the Savior using this little butterfly on the end of His finger as a teaching tool. Maybe He talks about how the butterfly starts out as this homely little caterpillar, and then through some miraculous metamorphosis it changes into this beautiful butterfly. Maybe He uses that as a reminder to teach us about who we are, where we came from, and what it is that we’re made of.

      In this particular piece, it’s called “Lost and Found.” And it shows a young man who maybe has wandered a little bit. There’s a meandering path in the background that represents sometimes the wandering path that we all take to get to this point. He’s taken his burden off his back and put it at the Savior’s feet. And now the Savior’s just asking for him to ask for His help. In a little bit of irony, this young man was a good friend of our son, and they were the same age. And just a few weeks ago we attended his funeral. He suffered from some very difficult emotional challenges and chose to end his life here on Earth. And it was a sad thing. But there’s some comfort in knowing that even in those cases there is someone who knows us so well, who can receive us with open arms and nurture us and love us through the most difficult of times. We all face them, we’ve all had times when we feel like, “I just can’t go any further, I can’t do this anymore.” Just know that there is someone there who completely understands.

      As Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, speaking of the Savior, we can never look to Him and say you just don’t understand, because in some special way He has learned just what it’s like to be us. He knows because of the Atonement that he performed as His flesh was broken and His blood was spilled. He experienced in some incomprehensible way everything that you and I will experience in mortality. He knows what it’s like to be ordinary people. He knows what it’s like to feel pain and sorrow, hunger, depression, discouragement, temptation, all of those things He’s acquainted with, and to the ultimate degree.

      Somehow in the Garden of Gethsemane He descended below all things. And I like to think that somehow it was His love for you and for me that gave Him the strength to conquer. This must have been a very depressing night in many ways. And yet, it was also His greatest triumph. He made it out of that awful pit. He drank the dregs of that bitter cup, and He overcame. He clawed His way out. I think it was in great measure because of His tremendous love for you and me. That ought to give us comfort, strength and encouragement, and confidence as we approach our Heavenly Father through the Savior.

      One day all of our tears will be wiped away. These difficult experiences we have here on Earth are not forever. They will be just a blink of the eye. One day those sins that we all commit will be forgotten, remembered no more, as the Savior has taken them upon Himself.

      I just want to leave with you a simple little exercise. And this is kind of to the point of what I was talking about in the beginning. As I’ve spent time working on these images, one thought has distilled upon me above everything else. And I think of it every week as I hear the sacrament prayer, and it simply is: As we remember Him, we will have His Spirit to be with us. And one way that we can invite that Spirit and remember Him is to take a few moments each day, and this is in addition to our prayers where we’re sorting out things with the Lord, it’s in addition to reading our scriptures, and I’m not trying to give you one more thing on your checklist. It can be done anytime, anywhere. But just go inside and be still. We hear about taking time to ponder and meditate. Sometimes you don’t even know what that is, or how to do it. But part of it, I have come to believe, is stilling our minds and then using our imagination to turn our thoughts to the Savior. Think of Him.

      I like to sometimes imagine I’m on a rock, something like this, sitting next to the Savior. And then I think, “What would He think of me, if I was sitting right here? What would I say to Him?” I think He would want us to feel better about ourselves. I suspect He would want us, like He said to the people in Jerusalem, to come unto him, when He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often would I have gathered you, as a hen gathereth her chickens,” (Matthew 23:37). What a tender image that is. He just wants to just hug us and bring us close and help us see things through His eyes. How would you see yourself if you could somehow see through His eyes? How would you see your friends and acquaintances around you if you could see them through His eyes? Would it be different? Would it affect the way you think about yourself and about others?

      For me it does make a difference; it has made a difference. As I tried to somehow incorporate His awareness, see things from His perspective, the world around me changes. He really does stand at the door and knock. We have to open that door from the inside and let Him in. It’s our heart that He’s knocking, or…by coincidence, in this painting, I found this stone wall with this door in it, just to the left of that window in the door there was a stone that was shaped like a heart, kind of like a broken heart. And I thought, “Cool coincidence; that’s really what He’s doing is knocking on the door of our heart.”

      Each day we can try to imagine that we maybe walk a mile by His side. What would that be like? Start your day, if you can, with thoughts of Him. Even though, this piece kind of…it’s called, “Hope on the Horizon.” On the left-hand side are these storm clouds and rocky terrain. On the right-hand side is sort of a depiction of a heavenly city, or Zion, or the kingdom of God. Even though we might physically be here on the left-hand side, He’s dividing that scene in two with His staff, asking us to make a choice. We can grow the kingdom of God within us, even though we might walk on shadowy, rocky terrain while we’re here, if our thoughts are drawn out towards Him, we can be in the world, and not of the world.

      We can have a life of happiness. We ought to be really the most joyous people in the world, with everything that we know. And I’d just like to leave you with the reminder that everything you see around you is created for you, for your happiness. Man is that he might have joy (2 Nephi 2:27). As we go through our lives, I would hope that we would do as Jesus did. This is one of the most recent images that I’ve done representing John the Baptist and Jesus. And they were cousins; they had some very difficult times in their lives. Their lives ended violently, tragically. And yet I suspect that they lived their lives with a lot of joy and happiness and understanding of why they were here, where they were going, and what was really inside of them.

      I want to bear you my testimony that that same knowledge can come to you. The Savior can reveal it to your heart through the Spirit and let you know what it is you’re made of, why you’re here, what your mission is all about, and I suspect in some part, most of the joy that will come to you in your life will be as a result of sharing whatever it is that’s unique inside of you with other people. It almost always has something to do with blessing the lives of those around you. Because as you forget yourself and lose yourself, you’ll find yourself.

      I leave these thoughts with you, along with my testimony that He lives, that He loves you, that He knows you, that He will be with you. And that one day, all our tears will be wiped away; even though we go through difficult times now, there’s wonderful hope on the horizon. And even here and now, we can grow the kingdom of God in our own heart. And I leave these thoughts with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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