HUNTSVILLE, Weber County — JR Johansen can’t explain how he’s alive, although he has a theory.
Standing in his backyard art studio, the Vietnam veteran with a graying, flat-top haircut and kind eyes said he suffered a heart attack in 2013. His cardiologist gave him less than two years to live.
Nearly a decade later, Johansen is still here. His doctor said he has never had a patient in this circumstance whose health actually improved. During a recent six-month checkup, he asked his patient “what he does these days?”
“I paint when I can,” Johansen said.
Truthfully, it‘s more than just painting. Johansen has invested countless hours in creating more than 125 portraits of Latter-day Saint missionaries who died while serving and given them as gifts to their families. His doctor was impressed.
“He says, ‘I’m going to journal about you, you’re unique,’” Johansen said. “‘I’m going to tell all my cardiac survivors that if they want to keep living, they need to start painting portraits of people who have passed away.’”
Johansen, who will be 77 years old on Jan. 13, said he believes painting the missionary portraits have prolonged his life.
“I feel good most days. ... This thing is keeping me alive, at least physically and spiritually. It certainly has blessed me,” Johansen said. “As long as I can continue doing this I think I will be around for a while.”
Painting as therapy
Johansen’s interest in painting can be traced back to his military service in the Vietnam War.
Johansen and three other soldiers were tracking a North Vietnamese general through the jungle one day when an aircraft dropped poisonous Agent Orange on them. The effects of the tactical herbicide caused long-term damage to Johansen’s lungs and heart.
The war also left him with some traumatic memories.
Several decades later in June 2013, Johansen and his wife had recently returned from a Latter-day Saint mission to Nigeria when he suffered a heart attack.
“They told me my heart had failed because of blood clots in my lungs,” he said.
It was around this time that Johansen started painting as a form of therapy. He came up with the idea of painting portraits of children who had terminal illnesses or who had died and donating them to the parents. If they liked it, wonderful; if not, they didn’t have to keep it, Johansen said.
“So I began painting,” Johansen said. “I realized I looked forward to getting up every morning to go out and paint. There were days I didn’t feel good, but it was a positive thing for me because of some of the experiences I’ve had. It has helped me to be happy and I love it.”
‘A huge, wonderful project’
In 2014, Elder Mason Bailey, of Richfield, was struck by a car while serving in the Stockholm Sweden Mission. Johansen received a call from the missionary’s mother asking if he would consider painting a portrait of her son?
The artist agreed and painted a portrait of the missionary.
The Bailey portrait was soon noticed by Cindy Thredgold. Her son, Connor Thredgold, and his companion died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Taiwan in 2014. She also requested a portrait, and he became Johansen’s fourth missionary painting.
After receiving the portrait, Cindy Thredgold informed Johansen that she had used her skills as a genealogist and researcher to find and document hundreds of deceased missionaries on her blog.
“That’s what started us working together,” she said.
To date, Johansen has completed 127 portraits and is working on another 10 or 11. He plans to keep going as long as he has the energy and permission from a family to paint their missionary. Each portrait is provided at no cost.
Thredgold says she has found more than 1,000 missionaries who have died in the mission field over the years. That’s fewer than .001% of the over 1 million missionaries who have served going back to earliest days of missionary work in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is 1/20th the normal mortality rate for young people, according to the World Health Organization.
Thredgold has compiled a list with all the information on her website. Her goal is to keep Johansen supplied with missionaries to paint because she believes it is helping to keep him alive, she said.
“It’s been a huge, wonderful project, and many people are blessed to have those portraits in the home,” Thredgold said.
Helping Johansen has also enriched Thredgold’s life, despite losing her son.
“I sure would love to have Connor back,” she said. “But at the same time, if he had never passed away, this connection with all these other families would never have happened, and I have some dear, dear friends because of this that I would never have had.”
‘I’ve had marvelous experiences’
Something special happened when Johansen painted the portrait of Elder Jeremy McCauley, a missionary from Payson who died of unknown causes while serving in the church’s Wisconsin Milwaukee Mission. He started working one Monday morning around 9 a.m. and by noon he was finished. During the process, he figured out a new technique he had not used before.
Curious, Johansen called the missionary’s mother with a question.
“Did he like art?” he said. “Because I feel like he’s been here helping me.”
The mother informed Johansen that her son excelled in art and was a Sterling Scholar, a recognition given to top Utah high school students in various subjects.
“It was a powerful experience for me,” Johansen said. “I’ve had marvelous experiences in painting these portraits.”
The sacred experiences have also taken place when delivering portraits to families.
Last summer, Elder Michael Davis, of Corinne, Utah, was one of two missionaries who died from injuries sustained in a car crash while serving in New Mexico. He was only weeks from completing his service and returning home when the accident occurred, and his family had already scheduled a homecoming celebration. They decided to go ahead as planned, said Kim Davis, his mother.
Johansen worked with a family member as he painted, asking for feedback and opinions as he sketched, added color and finished the portrait. When he unwrapped and presented the portrait at the family event, most were seeing it for the first time, including his parents.
“(The missionary’s father) fell to his knees and said, ‘Mike, welcome home,’” Johansen said. “It was as emotional for me as it was for them.”
What the family loved most about the painting is how it seemed to bring their son back to life. Johansen’s efforts to get to know their son and his attention to detail had produced a masterpiece that meant a lot to the family.
“It wasn’t just a picture of our son. It felt like he captured his personality. There was so much feeling with it. It was beautiful,” Kim Davis said. “It was a super spiritual moment for all of us.”
‘A personal delivery’
LaMar Creamer and his wife, Tami, longtime friends of Johansen, have likewise had special experiences in helping to deliver his missionary portraits to families living around the world.
The Creamers have a son who is a pilot, and through his privileges with his airline, they have arranged to travel and deliver some of Johansen’s portraits around the globe.
The first was four years ago when the Creamers delivered the portrait of Elder Aaron Patiole to his family in Australia. Since then they have been to Chile and various cities across the United States. They say the effort is worth it when they hand the portrait over to the family. They have seen the portrait facilitate healing and closure.
“There’s a myriad of emotions that come over them, from tremendous joy to ‘Oh, my gosh, they caught him perfectly,’” LaMar Creamer said. “It’s neat to be able to make a personal delivery, not just something they get in the mail. That means a lot more to the recipients when someone is standing there.”
Sometimes the delivery has taken place in an airport just outside of security, lasting only minutes, but it’s still just as meaningful.
“It’s fast but it’s worth it for the sense of gratitude,” Creamer said. “It’s an amazing experience and my wife and I feel privileged to be part of it.”
More portraits to paint
As 2022 dawns, Johansen has added the final touches to a portrait for the family of Elder Nicholas Ferrin, who suffered a brain aneurysm while serving in the Oregon Portland Mission in 2010.
He is also working on the smiling face of Lynn Larson, who was called to the Italy Milan Mission but died in automobile accident a few days before he was scheduled to depart.
Across the room in his studio, Johansen flips through the color pages of “These Angels Among Us,” a book he self-published in 2020. It features the portraits and bios of his first 103 missionary portraits. With generous support from the Ken Garff family, Johansen was able to give families a copy of the book along with their portrait.
As he reflects on the overall experience, it brings Johansen profound joy to receive letters, emails and texts from grateful families.
“They say, ‘Oh, I love walking out the door every day and saying hi to my son or daughter. They are real and part of our life,’” he said. “I can tell that they are happy, and that makes it positive for me.”
Latter-day Saints believe in life beyond death and that its possible for families to exist together in the hereafter.
Johansen’s son Kyle has taken an interest in his father’s project and painted three missionary portraits of his own, including one for President Giovanni Pelin Pangan, who was serving as a mission president in the Philippines when he unexpectedly died last year. Johansen would like to see Kyle continue.
“I’m hoping Kyle can sort of take over after I am unable to do them anymore,” Johansen said.