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Everson artist hopes to present Pope Emeritus Benedict with portrait

Linda Harkcom | For the Daily Courier
Everson artist James Robert Kessler (right) has created portraits of Pope John Paul II (left) and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (right). He and his wife Wanda Kessler (left) hope to present the portraits to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The artist had an opportunity in 1999 to present Pope John Paul II with the portrait which the then pope had seen photos of, but was unable to make the trip.

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Friday, March 29, 2013, 7:36 p.m.

This winter, divine inspiration led a local artist to begin to research Pope Benedict XVI for a portrait. Now with the portrait complete he hopes to raise enough money and make the right connections to make his dream of presenting the portrait in person, to the now pope emeritus, come true.

“I was actually working on another series of paintings when I became inspired to begin researching Pope Benedict. The day he said he was retiring I knew that it was time to paint his portrait. I finished it in only a week and a half, which was pretty unusual,” said artist James Robert Kessler of Everson.

The painting shows the Roman Catholic pope emeritus wearing a white cap and red robes in front of a stained-glass image by a German artist of Jesus holding a lamb.

“I chose that image of the stained-glass window to tie him back to his German roots and because he was part of that good shepherd image. He had a lot of responsibility watching over all of the Catholics in the world,” Kessler said.

The image of the pope emeritus in the painting shows a gentler image of Benedict.

“When you think of Pope Benedict, you often think of his hard edge, and I see the humanity in him. When you look up his history, you see he has been a good and faithful servant of the church for a very long time,” Kessler said. “Can you imagine having that kind of power in the church and being able to step down from that? It really takes a lot of humility.”

This is not Kessler's first papal portrait. In 1998, the artist was moved to create a painting of Pope John Paul II titled “Be Not Afraid.” He sent the then-pope two 8- by 10-inch photographs of the painting and was surprised to receive a letter from the Vatican saying how much John Paul II loved the artwork.

The next year, Kessler sent John Paul another letter reminding him about the painting. He received another letter from the Vatican, this time inviting him to present the painting to the pope in person when he visited St. Louis that year.

Unfortunately Kessler was unable to make the trip to meet the pope, and he sent a letter informing the Vatican. He received a letter in response that included an autographed photo of John Paul holding a staff with a cross on it just like the one in the portrait he had created.

Kessler said he regrets having to miss his opportunity to present the portrait to John Paul, and he hopes he will be able to present Benedict with the portrait he has painted for him as well as the portrait of John Paul.

“I really believe this is our opportunity now because he is still with us. I want to present his closest friend the original painting of John Paul and then honor him with his own portrait. It will be a full-circle moment that will make that story complete,” Kessler said.

He said he would be very honored to have his work at the Vatican.

“I grew up in Connellsville, and it would be great if an artist who grew up in Connellsville would have a piece of art hanging in the Vatican alongside artists such as Michelangelo,” he said.

Kessler, who operates Because of Him Art Ministry, paints many secular and nonsecular subjects. He is not Catholic by faith.

“I don't see walls with the different religions,” he said.

Kessler and his wife, Wanda, are selling prints of the Benedict painting in hopes of raising enough money for the trip. There are 4- by 6-inch devotional cards for $5, and Kessler said they are in the process of getting 16- by 20-inch prints.

“We have someone who has already ordered several for Easter gifts,” said Wanda Kessler.

The couple also has about 500 of the 16- by 20-inch prints of John Paul as well. That print is available for $25.

Raising the money is only half the battle. The Kesslers said they are searching for someone to help arrange the presentation.

“We are hoping someone will hear our story who has connections to help us to get the opportunity to present the painting in person,” Wanda Kessler said.

Her husband said he was pleased with the recent appointment of Pope Francis.

“From the moment I saw him, I knew they made the right choice. There are no coincidences. Pope Francis is the change needed, and only a humble and contrite spirit that Benedict XVI displayed would have realized it,” he said. “When we go to Rome, I'll have something ready for Pope Francis as well.”

To order prints of either of the papal paintings, call 724-880-0782. For more information or to view Kessler's other works, visit

Linda Harkcom is a freelance writer.

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