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Artist delights in chance to carve oxen

12 of them will support font in Nauvoo Temple

IDAHO FALLS — With a mist of powdery limestone suspended in the cool air, Allen Haroldsen's workshop looks like the kind of place dreams come true.

It is.

A graphics designer at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Haroldsen took a leave of absence from work to sculpt the oxen that will support the baptismal font in the reconstruction of the historic Nauvoo Temple in Illinois.

"This is what I've dreamed of all my life," he said of his work for the temple.

The Nauvoo Temple holds special meaning for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While not the first temple built, it was the first one actually used to perform the sacred ordinances for which it was designed and then only briefly, from Dec. 10, 1845, to Feb. 7, 1846.

During that time, more than 5,000 members of the church received their sacred ordinances in the Nauvoo Temple. Less than a week after the last ordinances were performed, church President Brigham Young left Nauvoo on the journey west to find a home for the often-persecuted church members in Utah.

The original temple was consumed by an arsonist's fire on Oct. 9, 1848, and the following years saw many of the stones carted off for use in other buildings or hauled to the dump.

To date, Haroldsen has completed sculpting three of the 12 oxen. As many as seven of the oxen will be sculpted in Idaho Falls at Idaho Travertine Corp., where workers are also cutting all the stone for the temple's exterior.

The font design only requires 12 oxen — each representing one of the 12 tribes of Israel — but two additional oxen are being prepared in case of breakage during the 1,250-mile journey from Salt Lake City to Nauvoo.

It's exacting work, considering it's done with an air chisel, a tool that sounds like a buzz saw and moves like a jackhammer.

Haroldsen's hands started to go numb from the vibration of working long hours with the chisel; anti-vibration gloves helped to relieve the numbness. Ear plugs, safety goggles and a dust mask round out his ensemble of protective equipment.

"You feel like you should be dressed by NASA every morning," he said.

Each statue takes about 100 hours to complete. First, the excess stone is removed in large chunks. Then, as the stone approaches the desired shape, the air chisel does its work.

Haroldsen has little leeway in his sculpting of the oxen. Under the direction of church architects, a fiberglass model was designed and shipped to Idaho Travertine.

Haroldsen's challenge is to recreate the model in stone each time he carves an ox. Church leaders aren't interested in having the sculptors do their own interpretations. They want them to follow the template, said Tim Orchard, vice president and general manager of Idaho Travertine.

Limestone for the oxen statues is being shipped to Idaho Falls from a quarry near Russelville, Ala. The Alabama stone was chosen because it most closely resembles the stone of the original temple built in the 1840s.

The original quarries from which the Nauvoo temple was constructed are now underwater since a dam was built, changing the Mississippi River's course.

While most of the buildings in Nauvoo are restored as interpretive history buildings, the temple will be used to perform sacred ordinances for the central Midwest church members.

The completed statues are soon to be shipped to Salt Lake City, where the contractor will send them to Nauvoo. The baptismal font is scheduled to be completed and installed sometime this summer.