Rick Statz thought his boss had lost his mind.
Statz, national project director for Conrad Schmitt Studios, was under tremendous pressure overseeing a major restoration project for a church in Omaha, Neb., with a Christmas deadline, and here, B. Gunar Gruenke, president of Conrad Schmitt Studios, told him he was bringing in a 10-year-old artist from Massachusetts to work on the project? Someone he had seen featured on the Today Show, one of “Today’s Stars of Tomorrow?”
“I was skeptical,” admitted Statz, adding the two “might have” initially exchanged some heated words about the plan. But once he understood Gruenke’s motive, it all made sense.
Just as Gruenke’s grandfather, Bernard O. Gruenke, longtime head of the New Berlin studio that has grown to be one of the largest conservation/restoration companies in the United States, had been mentored by Marie Kohler of the Kohler Bath Company in 1930, when he was an 18-year-old, budding artist, his grandson wanted to pass that opportunity along to another youngster.
Gruenke caught the March 15 Today show piece on Joshua Chase, a 10-year-old from the Boston area who only months earlier had picked up a paint brush for the first time, and was hooked.
In the piece, Jenna Bush Hager, Today Show correspondent introduced viewers to Josh, portraying him as a kid who expressed an interest in painting and initially began copying artwork from books. He was particularly fascinated with the work of 91-year-old Martha’s Vineyard artist, Ray Ellis, known for his nature scenes, especially sea and landscapes, flowers and gardens.
Josh’s copies of Ellis’ work, and his originals, including an image of his brother playing baseball, done in oil, are remarkable likenesses, featuring brilliant colors.
“I liked his purity and his energy and the fact that he aspired to Ray Ellis and that his dream was to meet Ray Ellis,” said Gruenke, explaining what drew him to the 10-year-old artist, prompting him to offer the youngster the grant from the Gruenke Foundation for the Arts, enabling him to come to Wisconsin this summer to study with artists from Conrad Schmitt Studios.
“I thought maybe he’d be excited by this, and while it might not guide his future, it seemed like the right thing to do, and I felt Grandpa up there saying, ‘This is the kid,’” said Gruenke, adding that when he was on the phone calling the Chase family to discuss the opportunity, he felt as if God’s hand was guiding him.
The family, including mom, Chantel, dad, Philip and 12-year-old Ben, spent July 1 to 4 in Wisconsin. While Josh spent his days “at work” in the Conrad Schmitt Studios, the family took in sights around Milwaukee, including Miller Park, the Bronze Fonz statue in Milwaukee’s Third Ward and the lakefront.
While she, too, was skeptical and a little nervous when Gruenke first extended the invitation to Josh, Chantel now looks upon it as “God was calling, we’re going to answer.
“This has been a really great opportunity for Josh and helped open his eyes a little wider to the world of art,” she said, adding that the knowledge he is working on a church project is special. “Knowing that his brush strokes will be in a church where people are praying and getting married and celebrating in a community of faith is wonderful.”
During his stay, Josh worked mostly under the guidance of artist David Andrews who guided him through color mixing with a palette, helped him with decorative plaster work and taught him how to use gold leaf.
“He’s really talented, but we want to focus on seeing that he has a great time, loves it and is introduced to some different techniques,” said Andrews of the pint-sized artist with the shock of bright red hair and big, brown eyes who will be in fifth grade at Quinn Middle School in Hudson, Mass., in the fall. “Looking at his work, he has the most important elements of artistry, he knows how to conceptualize things. Things like learning how to hold a brush, he’ll learn over time – that took me many years – but he has the ability to render and mix colors,” according to Andrews who has worked on restoration of St. Josaphat Basilica, Milwaukee, the Basilica of Holy Hill, Hubertus, and St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, among many others.
The project Statz is overseeing, restoration of St. Peter Catholic Church in Omaha, has been more than seven years in the making. Working with first-time pastor, Fr. Damien Cook, Statz is overseeing the renovations of the 88-year-old building which has deteriorated from years of use. According to its website, “the church interior needs updated lighting, new flooring and pews, a repaired ceiling and decorative scheme that will inspire souls and reflect the heavenly dignity of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” These efforts will assist the parish in petitioning for the title of minor basilica, according to the site.
When the work is completed, if he visits Omaha, Josh will be able to look up at the new mural gracing the sanctuary and will know that he painted the trumpet in one of the angel’s hands.
During his time in Milwaukee, he and Andrews worked on the trumpet which at that time was part of a life-sized mural hanging along the wall of the New Berlin studio.
For Statz, seeing the results of the studio’s years of restorative work, is emotional.
“The dedication date for this project is Christmas and I will be in Omaha. When I go to these rededication Masses, it puts goose bumps all over and my hair stands on end,” he said, describing the emotion of seeing the completed work.
Prior to their trip to Wisconsin, Josh said his mom told him the work he’d be seeing is far larger than the paintings he’s done thus far, and that proved to be true.
The visit opened his eyes to the possibilities of art, he said, noting that he hopes to paint for a living one day.
Calling her son “a beautiful spirit,” Chantel, a nutritional counselor, said she and her husband, who works in product development for Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, will always encourage their son’s talent, and help open the door to opportunities such as the Gruenke Foundation grant, but will never push him to the point where art is no longer fun.
“We don’t want to make it become a job and turn him off to it, when God has clearly given him a talent and inkling to go in this direction. We want it to be interesting and fun for him,” she said, adding “there’s no way to repay Gunar and the Foundation for this opportunity. We pray that Gunar and his family are blessed and that the art foundation receives a thousand times what it has given to us.”
For his part, Gruenke and his sister, Heidi Gruenke Emery, are happy to give back to the next generation of artists.
“It’s an honor to be able to inspire our youth and to give them opportunities like those given to us and to our forefathers before us,” said Gruenke.