Church magazines are full of accounts of the Lord guiding hearts and hands around the world. This month, however, there is an extra special story behind the magazine itself. Hidden in the brushstrokes of all four magazines’ cover art (The Ensign, Liahona, New Era, and Friend) is a stunning story of the Lord’s tender involvement in the world.
The art that covers the May issues of the Church’s four magazines depicts one of the most miraculous manifestations of the Father and the Son’s caring involvement in this dispensation—the First Vision. The experiences of the two artists involved in art’s creations testify that Lord’s guidance extends beyond the pages of scriptures or large, miraculous stories in magazines—personal instructions are available anyone who seeks them.
The Miracles Begin
“I am having chills as I talk about it because it was . . .” artist Dan Burr trails off at a loss for words as he describes the process of receiving revelation for painting the First Vision.
Burr had been creating artwork about the First Vision for a children’s book called Oh, How Lovely Was the Morning. As that project near completion, Burr had an impression that he should send the artwork to Church magazines as well, even though that was not his original intention. Burr determined he would act on the prompting and email his images to a director in the Church art department, but he decided to wait until first thing the next morning. Around noon the next day, Burr finally remembered his prompting and sent an email with the images. He immediately received an email back from the director that simply said,
“Oh, I wish you would have sent these yesterday.”
Surprised, Dan quickly emailed back and asked why.
“We sent a bunch of images to the First Presidency to review for the cover for this Restoration anniversary, and we sent them first thing this morning,” the director replied.
Although Burr appeared to have narrowly missed his opportunity, the art director was impressed with his images and told him to send her a PDF with all of his images and that she would send them on to Elder Gong, who was involved in the decision for the cover art. The director told Burr that she was fairly certain the First Presidency had already found an image they loved, but that she would send his along.
The Waiting Game and Revelation
A month went by, and Burr heard nothing back. Just as he was accepting the fact that his art had not been chosen, he received an email from Tad Peterson, a senior art director with the Church. Peterson informed Burr that his art was under consideration, but that a few adjustments would need to be made for it to be considered further. Burr readily agreed and got to work.
“I went through the painting with a fine-toothed comb and just looked at literally every square inch. And again, there was [a] voice: ‘Change that. Fix this. Repaint that.’ Usually I’ll just say, ‘Nah, it looks good enough.’ and move on, but this time I thought, ‘Okay I’m just going to listen,’” recalls Burr.
Burr creates his paintings digitally.
Burr first heard the voice he refers to when he began work on the children’s book. Before he begins painting, Burr collects photo reference material and draws rough sketches of how each piece will look. He says he didn’t think much about how he would depict a pillar of light while sketching. And although he had taken photos of light coming through trees, Burr realized when he sat down to paint that he had no clear idea what the pillar of light Joseph saw may have actually looked like. But his hesitation didn’t last.
“Almost instantly, and I’m feeling that again right now as we speak, the thought came to me, ’Just paint.’ So, I just trusted in whatever that was and started painting. I was collecting light colors, light values, and I just started painting light coming from the top down. I guess I painted for probably a couple hours, and it was just sort of a stream of consciousness; I was just working. I stopped and I looked back at what I had done and I thought, ‘Oh, that looks really good! Thank you very much,’” says Burr.
He continues, “I was using processes I know and understand but had never used in my regular painting routine. I applied one after another after another. It was literally like I was part of a tutorial on how to paint a pillar of light. I was just the guy pushing the buttons, being told what to do. I was just following instructions.”
A Real Privilege
A few weeks after he submitted the revised artwork, Burr was notified that his painting and been selected for the cover of the Ensign and the Liahona. Later on, another one of his First Vision paintings was chosen for the New Era.
“I’ve done covers for a lot of different magazines. My work has been on the cover of Reader’s Digest; millions and millions of people have seen my work, but they look at the cover and say, ‘Oh that’s nice,’ and then they turn the cover and now the ground is looking at my image,” Burr says with a laugh. “It’s a pretty anonymous business, but this particular instance is a . . . real privilege.”
Burr’s daughter, Hannah Bischoff, had a front row seat to her father’s artistic process as she worked as the designer for the children’s book the paintings were originally created for.
“He felt really inspired with each painting. It was interesting to see his spiritual process through the whole thing,” says Bischoff. “It was clear that each painting was really thought out: the design, the composition, really every detail, every leaf.”
Fifteen-year-old Isaac Mattingly also got to be a part of Burr’s process in a unique way.
Mattingly and Burr attend the same ward, and Burr remarks that he had always thought that if he were to ever paint young Joseph Smith, Mattingly would make the perfect reference model. So when he agreed to paint for the children’s book, Burr reached out to Mattingly’s parents, and they and Isaac agreed to Burr’s request to use Isaac as a model.
On the day of the photoshoot, Burr gave Mattingly a period costume to change into to help make the reference pictures even more helpful.
“As an illustrator, I do photoshoots for a lot of the work that I do, and I’ve been on some when the model just isn’t right and it [is] really difficult to get what I had in my head from the model, . . . and then there [are times] where it’s just perfect,” says Burr. Isaac’s photoshoot was the latter.
After that initial photoshoot, however, Burr realized he lacked the adequate reference material for an important part of Joseph’s account: the darkness that surrounded the young prophet as he prayed.
“When I came to that painting . . . I started and actually finished the painting, but I just didn’t like it. It just didn’t communicate. It wasn’t frightening; it wasn’t dark. I messed around with it and I just realized that no matter what I do, it’s just not going to work,” says Burr.
So, Burr called Mattingly back to try some different poses. Still nothing seemed to work. Then, Mattingly explains, “I just tried to think about what it would have been like; what I would done if I was there.” That train of thought led him to curl up on the ground and claw as if in fear.
Using an overhead angle, Burr began snapping pictures. Later, when he reviewed the images, he found that Mattingly curled up on the ground made the picture uncomfortable, but not too frightening, which Burr considered an important balance for a children’s book.
“I did some drawings and realized very quickly that this is exactly the image I need to paint,” says Burr.
The completed image found in Oh, How Lovely Was the Morning
But Burr wasn’t the only one who was privileged to hear the Spirit’s voice in the creation of the representation of Joseph’s First Vision. Mattingly’s feelings about the Restoration and Joseph’s experience were also changed because of his part in Burr’s project.
“I was definitely more thankful for the First Vision and the gospel being restored,” he says. “I think it’s important to know about [the darkness] because it lets us know we have to have courage to overcome things. And by acting in faith, we will get the help that we need. It definitely helps us to understand that we need courage to show our faith, and faith takes courage sometimes.”
The Miracles Continue
While Burr was going through his own spiritual artistic process, the hands behind the artwork for the Friend cover had also been learning a lesson about faith overcoming fear from Joseph’s experience.
Sarah Keele and her husband had already been out of work for months when Sarah tested positive with COVID-19.
It started in early March when Keele had attended an art conference. Soon after the event, she began experiencing irregular breathing and a slight cough and fever. Not wanting to appear paranoid but also wanting to exercise caution, Keele distanced herself from others before getting tested for COVID-19. On March 28th she received the news: three attendees at the art conference had tested positive for COVID-19, including her.
“It was this feeling of, like, shock, ‘I can’t believe this is happening. This is the thing everyone is freaking out about, and I have it,’” says Keele.
At the time of her diagnosis, only about 20 other people in Utah County, where Sarah lived ,had tested positive for the virus. Keele rushed to reach out to anyone she had been in contact with over the past few weeks to let them know. Though gratefully none of the people she contacted ever showed any symptoms, her worries grew as she also learned she was expecting her and her husband’s third baby.
It was then that Keele was approached by a Church art director who explained that they had loved the Restoration art she had done within a Friend magazine previously and asked if she was interested in designing the cover. Keele was humbled and excited about the invitation. Her husband, Josh, also contributed an illustration that was put in the magazine. During this time of stress, drawing the cover of the Friend became a financial and spiritual blessing for the Keele family.
In the limbo of having COVID-19, trying to find work, and trying to prepare for a third pregnancy, Keele experienced many tender mercies, but she also felt pushed to a point where she couldn’t handle the fear and uncertainty any longer.
“We had been struggling for a long time before everything went crazy, and we finally felt like, ‘enough is enough, let’s change our perspective here because that is the only thing left to do,’” says Keele.
She continues, “I learned that it’s okay to feel fear, because it’s part of our human nature. What Joseph did when he felt it was to exert all of his energy to reach out to Heavenly Father and say, ‘Please save me from this.’ And if we do feel fear, that’s all that we have to do too. . . .Then we can have our own individual pillars of light. I’m very hopeful for the future. I think things are going to get better.”
Like Joseph who “at length came to conclusion that [he] must ask of God,” through this challenging experience, Keele reached out to God and now knows what it feels like to truly call upon Him to be delivered from confusion, just like the prophet she had drawn.
But those who have been involved in creating the covers don’t have to be the only one who have powerful spiritual experiences. As you look at the magazines sitting on your coffee table this month, perhaps they will also remind you to trust that in His timing, the Lord is painting miracles, brushstroke by brushstroke, into our own lives.
Lead images courtesy of Dan Burr. Other images provided by Dan Burr, Isaac Mattingly, Sarah Keele. Magazine screenshots from churchofjesuschrist.org.
The Latter-day hymn "Joseph Smith's First Prayer" has long inspired listeners to feel the peace and serenity young Joseph Smith must have experienced when he knelt in the Sacred Grove 200 years ago. Now, in commemoration of the bicentennial of this remarkable event, the timeless lyrics of this beloved hymn are highlighted alongside stunning new artwork by Dan Burr. Available now at DeseretBook.com.