Jesus kneeling, his hands clasped in prayer, takes up most of the 4-by-4-foot canvas by Belleville artist Keith Freeman. Blues and grays dominate the left and center part, but little figures in brighter colors that bubble up and around on the right were added later.
Marc Rodriguez’s upside down figure “is kind of looking like it was running away from its problems,” said the 16-year-old who attends O’Fallon Township High School. “To show how people run away from problems instead of facing them.”
Keith, 72, donated the work to Zion Lutheran Church in Belleville. He’s retired from teaching art at O’Fallon, as well as McKendree University and Southwestern Illinois College.
But there was a catch to giving away the painting: It wasn’t done. Stains from a fire were visible on it.
“I couldn’t work on it because it brought back such memories of the fire,” Keith said of a blaze that destroyed his Belleville home in August 2001.
It took a year to rebuild. During that time, the painting was stored in a neighbor’s garage, then later, to the basement, then behind the furnace to near the laundry area.
“It had soot, a rip in it, and I thought maybe the youth at the church would be able to finish it.”
So, more than 50 teens members picked up paint brushes and, under Keith’s guidance, painted stylized people representing themselves onto the canvas.
“The painting has a real gray look to it, kind of somber,” he said. It works well with the colors in the youth room and will be hung there.
Keith not only told them about the fire, but also wrote about it for posterity, said youth director KerriAnn Schmid.
“He wrote the story (of the painting) on the back, and (the ink) came through,” she said.
Belleville East student Lydia Aukamp, 17, said the group added to the piece over several weeks. Her figure was painted yellow, which Keith told them represented joy.
“Joy is my middle name,” she said.
Fellow group member Marc painted his orange, which Keith told them represents peace.
“I retired in 2000, and I always wanted to do a painting like the kinds I taught at McKendree,” Keith said of the work, which included stretching his own canvas and using rabbit skin glue, “just like the old masters did.”
The path to completion of that work was not what he expected, but “I am really pleased with it,” he said. “I’m just so happy the painting is going to have a home that it can stay in.”
The finished painting is waiting for a proper frame to be made for it before it can be hung. There is no timeline for that, although KerriAnn expects it will be soon.