Artist: God guides his brush, his work is a prayer

Joseph Kenny | jkenny@archstl.org

Stephen Otten's faith shines through in his work as an artist.

A veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whose art has been therapeutic, he is admired for his heroism, loyalty, creativity and deep and growing spirituality.

Otten, who is known as "Otter" by his friends, recently donated a painting of Pope Francis to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis Parish. The portrait, on which he used 17th-century pigments reminiscent of Rembrandt, came about during a three-month stay in Italy, during which he and his wife took care of his mother-in-law as she dealt with cancer treatment and surgery.

He kept hearing about "Papa Francesco" on the news. "I was in awe of how incredibly humble he is and the good things he is doing," Otten said. "I thought, 'I want to paint him.' There aren't very many images of him. And there aren't many that look at the viewer. I wanted to make a painting that would engage with the viewer and translate the likeness of Papa Francesco on a human level."

The pope has brought a lot of people to faith with his love, Otten said. "I wanted to paint a picture that depicted that. I didn't have a whole lot of images to go off of, so I had to construct my own image. ... I had to create his eyes and have them engage with the viewer."

Mission in life

It was as if God was guiding his brush, Otten said."It's not something I was taught. It's something I was given from God and it comes out in my paintings. My paintings aren't from me. In a way they are my mission in life."

As he was painting, he said, he felt as if he was praying for and with the pope and praying for his mother-in-law and his wife, so she would stay strong in the face of her mother's illness. In a painting such as this one, he said, "as long as this painting exists, so do my prayers and how I'm reminded of the faith I experienced in creating it."

Otten, whose home and studio are in Belleville, Ill., noted that he can be of service to God in creating images that could touch people and bring them to the faith or help them better see their faith. It's a way of helping them connect with Scripture, he noted, just as some of the past masters have made images known worldwide such as the "Last Judgment" by Michelangelo.

"It's important regardless of whether you're Catholic or not. If you're an art historian or artist and want to study some of the best art ever produced, which we consider happened during the Renaissance, when you're in the Sistine Chapel and look around and see the expressions, you've just received a story that is very important in the Catholic faith."

Sharpened his talent

Otten is a 1996 graduate of Belleville West High School. He then entered the Navy. A Navy SEAL for 10 years, he served three tours as a member of SEAL Team three -- in Afghanistan, Africa and Iraq.

After 12 years in the Navy, he returned home with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Art, he said, has become his therapy.

His mother and father are artists as well. In between operations overseas, he received art history books from his parents and studied Renaissance art.

Otten is a supporter of the education he received at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, where he donated a sculpture as a memorial to a classmate who had died, and especially Fontbonne University, where he learned anatomy and the techniques of the "Old Masters." He regularly gives a demonstration in the process for fresco painting for art students at Fontbonne.

He sharpened his talent as a sculptor in Italy, and he paints and draws like a sculptor, he said. It's the same thing Michelangelo did in painting the Sistine Chapel, Otten noted.

Another artist he admired who did works for the Catholic Church is Caravaggio. During his time at Fonbonne he did a drawing reconstructing Carravagio's "The Calling of St. Matthew."

A young St. Ignatius

John Pertzborn of the FOX2 television station in St. Louis and a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Belleville, met Otten while reporting on a citizens arrest in which Otten captured a shoplifter who was assaulting two grocery store managers. "Our friendship continued to grow as we continued to cross paths," Pertzborn said. "On one of those occasions, he said that he had fallen in love with a woman in Italy but there was one issue, she was Catholic and he was not. I encouraged 'Otter' to learn about the Church and to do some soul searching."

After a few months Otten asked Pertzborn how to become a Catholic. Pertzborn explained the process and offered to sponsor him. Otter entered the Church at Easter 2012.

"Our son Nick was attending SLUH at the time, so we parents were spending much time with the Jesuits. Perhaps that's why 'Otter' reminded me of young St. Ignatius of Loyola who had also experienced war injuries followed by a spiritual life," Pertzborn said.

Tim Liddy, associate professor of art at Fontbonne University, said he appreciates Otten's passion about his work. His time in the Navy has translated into his art, Liddy said. "He wants to be the best at what he does. He puts time into it, shows his love of it and gets good results."

Otten is excited about his work. "No military medal, no bronze star can ever be as honorable as being a painter for God."

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