Artist's paintbrush guided by faith in God


Gray Stephens works for the glory of God.

"I've given my hands over to God," said Mr. Stephens, a 39-year-old master portrait artist. "I'm looking for the glory to fall on this household."

Recently, while working on a closed-in porch that he will soon convert into another room at his Pasadena home, he stepped back to admire a work in progress.

Muscular men carry Christ, who is hanging from a cross, up a rocky hillside as a curly-haired dog, with an open mouth and dangling tongue, looks on.

The oil painting is a copy of Peter Paul Rubens' "The Raising of the Cross" and is one of four life-size murals Mr. Stephens and his students will paint and donate to the Church on the Rock at Patapsco Avenue and Hanover Street in Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood.

lTC The painting will be on display in the church's sanctuary during this morning's Easter services. Later in the year, he will add "The Second Coming," "Marriage Supper of the Lamb" and "The Fall (( of Man."

"If anything tells the story of the ministry of the Church on the Rock, this painting is it," said Rev. John Krach, pastor. "That's our assignment from the Lord, to raise the cross. I never dreamed that we could have such quality paintings."

Mr. Stephens is an artist by trade and heredity. He and his mother, also a portrait artist, studied together for 20 years under Eugene Kamelak, a European artist.

Today he restores and preserves damaged art. Three years ago, he restored a painting of heaven on the ceiling of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Glen Burnie. He is now restoring a decorative cornice that was damaged by fire at the Army Headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Mr. Stephens said he decided to paint the murals for the Church on the Rock after meeting Mr. Krach last summer.

He said he was inspired by the minister and the church's community outreach.

"Pastor John impressed me in being a very spirit-filled man, humble and thirsty" for God, Mr. Stephens said. "I was just inspired to offer [my work] to him."

His decision was also influenced by his dedication to God.

"I always wanted to do something great for God," he said. "I've had all kinds of opportunity to do sleazy type of work. But I told God if he would use my hands and provide a way for me, that I would give the gift of arts back to the churches."

He discussed the idea of painting the murals with his students, Ray Buchheister of Fairfield, Pa., and Lori Ferrara of Glen Burnie.

The church supplied $2,500 for high-quality materials -- birch and mahogany for the frame, Irish linen for the canvas, German oil paints made with metals. Mr. Stephens and his students began preparing the canvas in August. They started painting the 8-by-6-foot mural in December.

According to Mr. Buchheister, working on the painting is more than a lesson in art.

"It's a blessing all over," the 30-year-old computer-aided designer said, adding that he always wanted to paint religious murals. "What I've received is the knowledge and skill and also the spirituality that comes with it."

"I'm really glad the church is doing this for us," said Ms. Ferrara, 20. "I don't know that I will ever have a chance like this again, to work with the best material on this scale."

The finished painting would have a price tag of about $60,000 on the open market, Mr. Stephens said.

"People come in here and look at this painting and say, 'Wow, you guys must make a lot of money,' " said his wife, Valerie. "They can't imagine that we'd do something like this for free."

But Mr. Stephens said money, in this instance, is not his concern.

L "I want to blow the horn for Jesus," he said. "It's Easter."

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