'Norman Rockwell of Harley-Davidson' paints for Pope
Golden artist David Uhl presents his painting 'Chance Encounter' to Pope Francis. Credit: Harley-Davidson.
Golden artist David Uhl presents his painting 'Chance Encounter' to Pope Francis. Credit: Harley-Davidson.
By Julie FIlby
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.- There was an unusual meeting at the Vatican this summer when thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts rumbled into Rome for Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary celebrations in Europe.

Four days of reveling in and around the Eternal City kicked off June 12 when brass from the Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer had a chance to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Among members of the select group was Golden, Colo., artist David Uhl.

Uhl, well-known for his talent in capturing motorcycle culture with a timeless Norman-Rockwell-style of painting, was asked to make an exclusive piece to present to Pope Francis.

This image was then used for a special Vatican postcard.

“I was humbled by the opportunity,” he told the Denver Catholic Register during a conversation at his Golden studio July 30.

Uhl, 51, part of the Harley-Davidson organization since becoming their first licensed oil painter in 1998, received the request just a month before the event.

“The Vatican wants to commission a piece of art with us … so come up with something,” he said, relaying the gist of the phone call.

Putting other projects on the back burner, he began work on it immediately.

“I wanted to use a motorcycle that’s historic so you can’t really place the piece,” said Uhl, who has access to the Motor Company’s entire photo archive for inspiration. “It could be 50s, late 40s, 70s; who knows, it’s timeless.”

He settled on a 1948 Harley-Davidson FL panhead, and then came up with the concept of a group of clergy coming upon the bike while walking through a wide open St. Peter’s Square.

“(One of them) broke off from the gang to look at the bike,” he said.

The story was simple; the canvas was complicated.

“You’ve got a cobblestone road, a (bike) with a really complex grouping of chrome, and then you’ve got St. Peter’s Basilica with a thousand sculptures,” he said. “How do I get all this in the same piece and keep it so your focal point doesn’t get lost?”

Not only did he successfully manage the busyness, he did it in about a week, following more than two weeks of back and forth with Vatican officials.

Three weeks later, Uhl, with his wife and their two children, headed to Italy.

Following his regular weekly Wednesday audience June 12, Pope Francis took a short trip in the popemobile from St. Peter’s Square to a neighboring courtyard where Uhl and the rest of the Harley contingency waited. Others presented the pontiff with a leather Freedom jacket and two classic motorcycles, then Uhl was up.

What does one say when giving the Pope a piece of art?

“‘I’m humbled by this opportunity,’ ‘I can’t believe I’m actually here,’ ‘thank you so much,’” Uhl vaguely recalled his own words and mentioned that the pope, while smiling, was quiet.

“We were told he wouldn’t speak, that he understands English, but doesn’t speak it very well.”

Though he didn’t say a word, it was clear to Uhl and rest of the group that Pope Francis was pleased with the painting as evidenced by his double-take before leaving.

“He turned back around and looked at the painting and nodded,” Uhl shared. “Man, he loved it! I felt great about that, especially with all the art he’s seen.

“Everyone came out of that meeting 10 feet high.”

Pope Francis is a warm and radiant person, he said, and he considered the meeting a pivotal moment in his faith journey.

“For me, it’s crazy full circle,” said Uhl, the sixth of seven children raised in a devoutly Catholic family. “I went to Jesuit high school and he’s a Jesuit, and now I’m looking back at the things I was doing in high school.”

After attending St. John’s Jesuit High School in Maumee, Ohio, Uhl sought out other faiths, studying as many religions as he could get his hands on: Buddhism, Hinduism and Shamanism, among others.

“I was born with an intense curiosity,” he said. “I’ve always been that way.”
That journey ultimately brought him back where he started.

“I left a lot of that because I wasn’t capable of understanding it,” he said. “Now in the context of other religions and the kernel of truth they have, it’s brought me back to the Catholic faith.

“It’s a massive foundation, and the older I get the more I draw on it.”
While much of his work in the past decade-plus has been related to mechanical subjects, he hopes to paint more “from life” in the future.“

I just want to be the best conduit I can be for God as it comes through my fingers,” he said. “There’s nothing better than seeing something that’s holy and putting it on a canvas.”
For more about Uhl, visit www.uhlstudios.com.

Posted with permission from Denver Catholic Register, official publication of the Archdiocese of Denver.

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January 29, 2015

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