Portrait Artist Was Blessed
by John Paul II
John Petermeier captures the holiness of saints and the
beauty of God's creation in his drawings. An
Oct. 9 issue feature.
by JOSEPH PRONECHEN
like this one of John Paul II, whom he met in 2000, are
artist John Petermeier's specialty.
– Courtesy of John Petermeier
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
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
Was John Paul influential in your life prior to your trip
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
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
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,