On the very day Blessed John Paul II is declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, some lucky person will go home with an artwork showing the holy father in the twilight of his life – his head bowed in prayer, his eyes crinkled shut, his hands clasped firmly on his famously simple crozier.
Rendered in colored pencil and chalk pastel by Father Mike Mitchell, pastor of Our Lady of Divine Providence, the solemn yet stunning 16-by-20-inch portrait will be among the raffle items up for grabs at the April 27 conclusion of Our Lady of Divine Providence’s parish fair.
“He’s being canonized the weekend of our fair, so what a perfect thing to have for people who would like to honor him,” said Father Mitchell, who spent 26 years as a graphic artist, draftsman, journalist and teacher before being ordained to the priesthood in 2005 at age 50. “At the time I don’t even think I really knew (the day of the raffle) was the date he was going to be canonized.” Father Mitchell said. “So it was perfect – the day that somebody wins is his canonization day.”
A fast worker
The fair-bound artwork is one of three papal portraits Father Mitchell completed during a recent weeklong, stay-at-home vacation. The priest, who in past years has drawn tigers as raffle pieces for mascot-loving alumni of LSU and Holy Cross High, works exclusively from photographs. He pored over hundreds of images of the late pope before settling on three, each chosen because it illustrated a different era and facet of John Paul’s 27-year papacy.
The first portrait completed by Father Mitchell – one depicting a healthy and smiling John Paul wearing snow-white papal attire and a gold cross – was created in a single day in colored pencil.
“I tried to make that one as realistic as I could, concentrating on the face,” said Father Mitchell of the glowing 11-by-14-inch canvas. “It’s a very simple portrait.”
The artist’s one-portrait-per-day pace continued the following day when Father Mitchell took out his ebony pencil and white chalk pastels to draw the pope in his element in St. Peter’s Square. In this depiction, the miter-wearing pontiff faces the invisible multitudes while holding his crozier in one hand and extending the other in greeting.
“That’s him out with the people – in the miter, with the crozier – out there amongst us,” said Father Mike, noting that this artwork marked the first time he used sepia-colored paper rather than his customary white or off-white. Strategic areas of the canvas were left bare by the artist as a shadowing device, and white pastel was used to cast sunlight onto the pope’s chin, eye socket, miter, alb and the corpus of his crozier.
When Father Mitchell got down to drawing his third and final portrait of John Paul – the one of the aging pope that will be raffled off at Our Lady of Divine Providence’s fair – he hit a wall as he was laying in the three shades of green pastel for his composition’s background.
“Carpal tunnel reared its ugly head, so I stopped (drawing), put my brace back on and relaxed the rest of the evening,” recalled Father Mitchell, who was able to complete the piece the following morning.
The extra pain appears to have been worth it: The portrait, based on a photograph taken of the pope during his 1999 pilgrimage to St. Louis, and showing him swaddled in radiant yellow vestments, is Father Mitchell’s favorite of the trio.
“It’s from a period when he was such an inspiration to so many because of his own frailty and his own illness. That (image) said it all,” Father Mitchell said. “That’s why that one had to be the biggest, and that’s why that one had to be the one that I donated to the fair.”
Pondering another pope
Father Mitchell has yet to decide the destiny of his two remaining papal portraits. The priest, who also donates his art to Catholic institutions such as Notre Dame Seminary, said he is considering doing additional drawings of St. John Paul II. The current pope is another potential future subject, he added.
“I do Masses for special children, so I love when Pope Francis spots someone with special needs in the crowd and goes over to kiss their forehead or hug them,” Father Mitchell said. “When you see so many pictures that inspire you, you don’t want to limit yourself.”
Our Lady of Divine Providence’s parish fair will take place April 24-27 at 1000 North Starrett Road, Metairie.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.