This Oct. 22, the new feast day for Blessed John Paul II, will have special meaning for artist John Petermeier.
He had worked full time at several radio stations in Iowa, Wisconsin and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. But after seeing John Paul during a visit to Rome in 2000, he returned in earnest to his art, focusing mainly on portrait drawings, with Blessed John Paul II the subject of several of those works.
In September, Petermeier discussed his art and John Paul II from his Elk River, Minn., home.
Did you always want to be an artist?
I had an interest in art all my life and as a child knew that is what I’d be someday. In college my initial major was art. But I quickly learned I couldn’t do the applied commercial-artist type [of art]. I needed to be a little more free than that. I put art on the backburner, went into a different field, another creative avenue, radio broadcasting — and still do it on a part-time basis.
In a certain way, it’s related to art. Depending on the station, there’s a lot of creativity involved. Working in radio set my drawing back, but I always kept up with my art. I was occasionally asked to do a portrait.
My mother, Anna, became seriously ill about a year and a half prior to my father William and me going to Rome. I wanted to spend more time with her. She had cancer. Being around her I started drawing, but nothing really serious until I went to Italy and met the Holy Father in 2000. (His mother died before the trip.) That was when I got back into my art.
Was John Paul influential in your life prior to your trip to Rome?
John Paul II had a major influence on my life even prior to traveling to Italy. He’s the first pope I remember as a teen. I grew up watching him travel to Iowa (in 1979), to Poland — seeing that connection he had with everyone, that smile, his love and his interest in everyone.
Then, in 2000, we went with a pilgrimage tour group at my father’s urging, even though I wasn’t looking to go to Italy at that point. I didn’t realize we would be meeting Pope John Paul.
Tell me about that meeting.
We did have an acquaintance with our Bishop Harry Flynn (now archbishop emeritus of St. Paul and Minneapolis). I had been in contact with him during my mother’s illness. He was asked if there was any way he could arrange an audience with the Pope. He did write to the Holy Father’s secretary. We weren’t promised anything, but we carried a copy of the letter to Rome with us.
There, I had seen the Holy Father at his general audience (from very far away) and on screen going by in the popemobile. I was happy with that. But when we got back to the hotel, we were instructed to show up the next morning.
It was a dream come true. We were brought up to the papal apartments, along with 25-30 of us who had the same honor. We took our turn kneeling before the Holy Father. I took his hand, gave him my biggest smile, and looked right in his eyes and told him I loved him. It was a matter of a few seconds. He reached out and made the sign of the cross on my forehead and said, “God bless you.” He handed me a Rosary. I don’t think my feet touched the ground.
I think we had to have some help from above.
Did that meeting immediately influence you?
It cemented this man in my mind and how his life would affect me. I took such a great awareness of all his actions after that time and paid a lot more attention to everything he said and wrote. It was his Parkinson’s, his suffering, that really touched me greatly.
Once you returned from that memorable encounter, what artistic medium did you focus on?
I drew on mixing mediums I hadn’t used before. I had always done graphite-pencil portraits, for the most part on a self-taught trial-and-error basis. Using colored pencils mixed with design markers for a painted effect or to bring out details, I was able to put together my own technique to capture the images.
You focus mostly on portraits, especially of saints. What do you try to capture in your drawings of John Paul?
I’m trying to bring out his emotions and that love that he had for people. And that very sincere, devout contemplation that is so intense. When you would see him praying in such an intense way, it grabs your attention too. It makes you want to have what he has: that intense love or relationship with Christ. You want to ask, “Give that to me too.”
You also have several of the suffering Christ. Any other themes you focus on?
So much of my art is my wildlife art. It’s reflecting God’s creation and what a beautiful artist God is in all these creatures he’s given us. So I’m trying to imitate my Father in heaven a little bit by drawing these creatures. I do that with my religious art because it is his creation.
Were you always Catholic?
I always had a very devout Catholic family: parents who were very devout and very good role models for us and very wonderful four sisters and two brothers. We’re all in the Church and all love the Church.
John Paul’s “Letter to Artists” must have influenced you.
I did not read it until I had returned from the 2000 pilgrimage. It did affect me. John Paul was saying: If you find out you have some artistic talent, you have the obligation to develop it and not waste it because it is a gift from God. That gave a value or a confirmation to me as an artist. When I read this letter, it was a relief to hear because, so many times, artists are not given that value. But John Paul gave us that value. And it’s not just a value that comes monetarily. It’s a spiritual value — the great gift God has given you as an artist, and you need to appreciate that.
Any favorite quotes from John Paul?
“Beauty is the vocation bestowed on the artist by the Creator in the gift of artistic talent.” And: “Artistic talent is a gift from God, and whoever discovers it in himself has a certain obligation: to know that he cannot waste this talent, but must develop it.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
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