He may not be Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, VanGough, Picasso or Andrew Wyeth, but he is the great Karl Hepner, a Coatesville native and artist, who has great vision for beauty and art and gives the same electrifying expressions in his painting. He has a rare ability and intense devotion to work, as all the great masters before him have been known to have.
Hepner, like Enrico Caruso, the world's greatest tenor who had power, quality and range of his voice, Hepner has the power of his brush that gives the quality and beauty of his expressions on paper that turn out to be masterpieces, like his recent painting of the "Blessed Virgin Mary."
The painting is not a "Mona Lisa," but it is of the Blessed Mother and gives an electrifying expression with great beauty, Hepner said.
Karl Hepner, at 81 years old, has spent 75 years of his life as an artist. His works range from letter painting, stained glass, wall murals, painting of statues of people, places, buildings, etc., but his passion is of religious subjects. As a child, he loved to draw the saints.
Hepner believes most people start painting because other famous painters inspire them, by encouragement from art teachers, or by accident.
"But I don't think anyone started painting as an artist because they were a bad boy. I think I did, because as a kid at six or seven years old, I was a nasty kid. I didn't draw or paint until my mother sat me down when I was bad. And for me to sit still, she gave me a coloring magazine to color or draw. I liked it and started to copy and draw the pictures in the magazine. I liked it so much it has stayed with me for 75 years and I thank my mother for that," Hepner said.
"I can say my father also influenced me because he also drew and painted. He worked for the Philadelphia Electric Company and did painting on the side as a hobby. He would give the pictures away. I remember seeing some of his watercolor paintings that were hung around the house.
"I also used water coloring, but the painting wouldn't last. I now use acrylic paint, which can last a lifetime with care. I think the Italians and the Mexicans started painting with acrylic because it would hold up better in the tropical weather and would last longer on wall murals and statues.
"I remember when I started school I was inspired by my art teacher, Mr. Cooper. He really started me learning how to paint. Mr. Cooper also was the football coach," he said.
"Also, Corlous Hiallman was another great art teacher who was from Reading. He would come to Coatesville at the old Gordon School on Main Street to teach painting. Me and a friend, Ronnie Law, studied under Hiallman. I also took extra courses and learned a lot from another famous painter from Belgium, Franz DeMerlier, who moved from Chadds Ford from Belgium and taught painting at the old YMCA. DeMerlier always said he loved Chester County and would depict all that was beautiful and compelling in the valley of Chester and Delaware. He was great and was known for his great painting, like the one, "Brandywine Mill Race" done in 1936.
"Franz was the artist who taught us charcoal drawing, which was done with a burned coal stick," Hepner said. "He was a darn good painter and painted most of the Quaker Meeting Houses in our area. He was a great teacher."
Hepner said he went to Coatesville schools up to 10th grade. Then in 1942 he and many of his friends joined the Army or service. While in the service he did some painting and lettering and became the letterman. "I would paint and lettering the officers and enlisted men's foot lockers. I had to put their names and numbers on them, using pencils.
"While in the service, I was in the Army Infantry, I became a squad leader and was in the Solomon Islands during the war. Some of our local guys I saw there were Pete DiMio, Dominick Guerrera, Orlando Bachio. I met Orlando one time in the Philippines. We were in the same division, but in different companies.
"We were hunting Japs in the woods and I happened to run into Orlando. We were both surprised to meet each other in the war zone. I never forgot that Orlando said, 'What the hell are we doing out here, away from home looking for Japs.'"
"I left the service after the war in 1945. I came home and wasn't sure what I was going to do, until a Greek family, the Geehess brothers, encouraged me to continue my painting. They took me to Philadelphia Trade School on Locust Street so I could learn sign painting. After four years of that, the trade school closed up. I then went across the street to Cannon's Art School and took general painting for two months.
"I then got a job in Philadelphia at Snyder Photography on Market Street. I had the job of setting up the plates, putting them onto the press for printing.
"I then became a photographer for them for 15 years. I would take pictures in the day and would paint in the evening. My parents passed away during that time. I came back to the area and got a job at Business Art and Science in Downingtown. John Morris and Harry Grossman owned the place. I spent about 15 years there, painting and lettering signs, including laying them out.
"I then went to work for Don Mason in Pottstown, also painting and painting signs, for several years. I kept busy. I then went on my own, as I built a small clientele. I did stained glass windows and walls, painting for people. I even did murals on walls, like the one in Sadsburyville at a farmhouse. A mother wanted me to do her son's room. His name was Noel and she wanted a portrait of "Noel Ark" on the wall. It took two weeks to finish it," Hepner said. "It turned out beautiful."
"After 10 years, the family moved and the wall was painted over by the new residents," Hepner said. "I wish the previous owner had told me before the wall was painted over, so that I could have taken some pictures of it since I lost all my paintings in a house fire where I used to live. I now only have paintings from recent years, which isn't too many," he said.
"I've been doing religious subjects like this one," Hepner said, as he showed me the "Blessed Mother" portrait. He has yet to finish it with the words of "Mother Mary's Prayer," which he will put at the bottom of the painting.
"I also painted greeting cards. I love buying greeting cards, so to paint the different scenery it displays," Hepner said. "I also buy statues to paint and draw. One time I bought a David statue in Philadelphia, carrying it with me to my apartment. You should have seen the young women looking at it. As you know, the David statue exposes his private parts," he said laughing. "I brought the statues home and every night I would paint the different angles of the statue.
"I learned a lot of how to paint and draw statues, as I had over 200 sketches and paintings, but lost them all to a fire. The fire gutted everything I had in my old house.
"I love the Biblical subjects and the Italian art. My favorite artist I can say is Michelangelo. He was an unbelievable artist. He could handle any kind of statue made from stone and paint anything anywhere, like he did at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It probably is the greatest artwork ever done," Hepner said.
"I also did a beautiful painting of Jesus Christ taken into heaven after his Crucifixion over in West Chester, where I won first place in a contest. I also lost that painting in the fire," he said.
"I didn't sell a lot of my paintings, but I've done hundreds that I never took good records or photos of.. I lost them all to the fire," Hepner said sadly.
"I now give my paintings away, so not to keep so many in case I lose or ruin them somehow. I never made a living off my painting, but I continue to paint when I can because it keeps me young. I do have some arthritis in my hand and it gets very hard to paint anymore. You know, anybody can paint if they apply and dedicate themselves," Hepner finished.
In the end, just like Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, and Picasso, who were all inspired by the greatness of others, Hepner will pass on the torch of the magical brush to the next "Caruso."
Until next time,
P.S. When I asked Hepner of any funny incidents that happened to him during his years of painting, he replied, "Yeah! It was funny to me, but the lady who saw me was surprised. The one day I was painting the wall mural of Noel's Ark at this lady's residence. I had to reach and stretch, extending my arms high to reach the spot I was painting. In my awkward, twisted position, I knew how Michelangelo felt when he painted the Sistine Chapel. All of a sudden, my pants fell off, dropped like a ship's anchor down to my ankles. That's the God's truth," he said, laughing.
"Just then the lady of the house came walking in and saw me with my pants down, wrapped around my ankles, as if I was posing half naked. I stood there in shock, just as surprised and shocked as she was. I said, 'Oh my, excuse me.' I couldn't do anything. I had the paint can in one hand and the paintbrush in the other. I then turned around, put my brush and can down and pulled my pants up. It was the funniest thing. Luckily I had my underwear on," Hepner said laughing.