When artist David Uhl begins a piece of art, he finds he has the best results when he “is a channel for a higher power and he steps back and lets God ride through.”
This time, God, through his artwork, led him on a journey on the back of a Harley to Rome in June where Uhl not only was commissioned by the Vatican to create a special commemorative postcard to be sold during the Harley 110th celebration there, but was also granted an audience with Pope Francis.
Uhl, officially licensed Harley-Davidson oil painter, will be in Milwaukee as part of Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary celebration, Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, with his Vatican-inspired work.
As Uhl, of Uhl Studios in Golden, Col., reflected on the whirlwind experience which began with the request about two months ago to create the postcard for the Vatican, he noted the project has brought him full circle, leading him back to his Catholic roots.
Originally from Erie, Mich., Uhl, 52, described his family as “extremely Catholic” with seven kids and lots of cousins. A product of Catholic education, he also was an altar server at his home parish, St. Joseph in Erie.
By the time he was ready for high school, the family had moved to Ohio and Uhl attended St. John’s Jesuit High School and Academy in Toledo, a college prep school for young men. Its alumni include doctors, lawyers and athletes, but Uhl noted he’s pretty sure he’s the only artist the school has produced.
He began high school thinking he’d become a marine biologist. The school, he said, did not even offer art at the time.
Yet, as he looks back, Uhl noted St. John played a role in his art career.
“There was no art at the school, but as a result of sitting in class and taking notes all day with my ballpoint pen, I highly refined my doodling ability, I guess. I invented my own calligraphy – I can write like Thomas Jefferson – you know how the older people used to write beautifully, well I took it to a whole new height.”
David Uhl and his artwork will be on display at the Harley Museum, 400 W. Canal St., Milwaukee, during Harley’s 110th anniversary celebration, Aug. 29-Sept. 1. The Vatican postcards will be available.
In addition to doodling on his notebooks while taking notes, Uhl created pictures he said were good enough to sell to his classmates.
They purchased some of his Salvador Dali-type works, Armageddon-like scenes, and since it was an all-boys’ school, they also were eager to buy his images of pretty girls, he said.
As a senior, Uhl heard of an art scholarship where the winner would receive a full ride to his or her choice of five design schools in the country.
While the odds of winning were slim, Uhl said he entered two of his drawings for scholarship consideration. One was his first color pencil drawing, a portrait, and the second was one of his now-signature ballpoint drawings. Much to his surprise, he won the scholarship and attended the Colorado Institute of Art, enrolling in September 1979.
He never finished. Rather, he dropped out midway through after realizing he was required to do things he didn’t enjoy such as paste up and advertising-related work.
“I just wanted to draw and paint and I really enjoyed illustration and liked design,” he said, explaining he didn’t enjoy work that lacked creativity.
After leaving school, he became a successful freelance illustrator, doing work for Coca Cola, Apple, IBM, Federal Express and Time magazine, among many others.
When, in 1993, he purchased a Harley for himself, he began a whole new professional journey.
Uhl said he attended a dealer meeting in Boston and created a piece of art with Harley motors superimposed on Mount Rushmore. Harley officials liked the piece and Uhl landed a big account creating images for Harley T-shirts.
But after some 600 or 700 images that graced shirts between 1994 and 1998, Uhl turned his attention to artwork “that would not get all chewed up in a dryer; I wanted something that would last a little longer and I decided to go into painting for the first time.”
Prior to that, his images were pencil or pen drawings.
Again Harley officials at the Juneau factory in Milwaukee liked his work, which he describes as “timeless,” nostalgic images featuring Harley motorcycles set in undefined eras.
Of the nearly 600 images he’s done since 1998, most are pre-1950s and 1940s subject matter.
When asked to paint the commemorative postcard for the Rome Harley reunion, June 13-16, Uhl again sought to create that timeless look. His preliminary sketches included a Harley, positioned in the Eternal City. In one, a Vatican official was standing with an old-style camera photographing a bike and in a second, Uhl said he included a cliché-type image of a white dove landing on the Harley handlebars.
But when he submitted these sketches, officials at the Vatican rejected the dove as “too cheesy,” according to Uhl, and preferred another of his ideas, the one that became the postcard with a group of Vatican officials in the square looking at the bike, while one branched off to take a closer, admiring look of this “crazy machine.”
To paint the image, titled “Chance Encounter,” Uhl said, “I’m going to need to rent one of those uniforms” (black cassocks) and asked one of his “most priestly, studious friends,” who actually owns 20 bikes, to pose for him.”
He created the image of St. Peter’s Basilica using hundreds of photos.
Uhl admitted there was some back and forth with Vatican art officials as he worked on the piece. Most significantly, in his original effort, the officials’ scarves were bright red, but he was asked to change them, because he was told a group of monks is known for wearing red scarves. He next made them purple, but finally, the officials were satisfied with the camel-color in the finished product.
According to Matthew Knott, public relations and communications manager for Harley-Davidson Europe, the painting “perfectly captures the moment Harley-Davidson put rubber to the road in Rome.”
Working on the painting was a relearning experience for Uhl.
“I learned about the (church and its history) in high school, but that that time, it went in one door and out the other. Somehow, when you’re younger, it does not register and when you’re older, it’s fascinating,” he said.
As he was putting the finishing touches on the painting, Uhl received an invitation from the Vatican to go to Rome for the festivities.
Thrilled at the invitation, which also extended to his wife of 20 years, Elizabeth, and their children, Isabella, 15 and David, 10, Uhl scrambled to frame and transport about 19 canvases for gallery display while in Rome.
Along with Willie G. Davidson, former senior vice president and chief styling officer for Harley Davidson and his wife, Nancy, he met Pope Francis and presented the painting to him in person during a 30-minute audience.
“Essentially, I was so humbled being there. For an artist, Rome is intimidating, as you’re in the presence of Michelangelo. I was overwhelmed and felt a little like the Little Drummer Boy, as I presented the tiniest gift, but on behalf of the motorcycle company and myself, I present this painting,” he said, explaining these were the words he used as presented the image to the pope.
Pope Francis, said Uhl, was warm, receptive and as he walked away, he turned back to the image, pointed at it and smiled, giving the Harley representatives the impression that he liked it.
The experience, said Uhl, has made him more aware of his Catholic roots and has encouraged him to learn more about the faith of his youth.
“For me, it’s come full circle. I’ve spent my entire life studying, trying to find out the nature of reality and now I find out the depths of my roots. My whole family is extremely religious, and I’ve been more of a searcher, studying Buddhism, Hinduism and anything I can get my hands on, but finding out the depths of my roots has brought me back full circle and I’m really enjoying this stage in my life,” he said.
Uhl said he hopes that those who see the image will look fondly not only on the church, but on the Harley-Davidson company, too.
“I wanted to bring Harley into the mix. To me, Harley Davidson has withstood the test of time; as well as for a company, they manufacture something that looks like an antique and it’s been incredibly successful. Somehow those things, even though historically are so vastly different, (the Catholic Church and Harley) they still represent the same thing, really powerful presences,” he said, adding in this case, the pull of the Harley is enough to even pull a priest aside.
Honored to have been part of the celebration, Uhl said the project “has ignited a spark for me to look back at my life roots, where I came from, and now I have a real interest in digging deeper, finding out more. It all really does come down to faith, and how strong we have it in the end.”