It may seem an unlikely story, but Joe Sheppard's career as portraitist to popes and cardinals had its genesis in a boxing ring.
"Years ago, I used to box every Saturday at Mack Lewis' gym on Broadway," recalls the 77-year-old Maryland artist, who now lives part of each year in Pietrasanta, Italy.
"One day, this guy who had been playing basketball comes over and says, 'Can I box with you?' So I said OK. I never knew his name or anything."
Years later, Sheppard ran into the fellow at a party.
"Turned out he was a lawyer for the archdiocese," Sheppard says. "So we talked about our old boxing days, and then he says, 'Would you be interested in doing a portrait?'"
Call it luck or divine intervention, but soon afterward Sheppard found himself meeting with Cardinal William H. Keeler -- and accepting his first commission from the archdiocese. It was the start of a long and fruitful relationship with the Baltimore church.
Sheppard was in town last week to attend groundbreaking ceremonies for a downtown park that will feature his most recent church commission, a 7-foot-tall statue of Pope John Paul II that Keeler has praised as one of the artist's most effective works.
Last year Sheppard won a commission to paint an official portrait of the current pontiff, Benedict XVI, who will make his first North American visit as pope when he arrives in Washington on Tuesday.
Sheppard also has painted portraits of Keeler, Archbishop William D. Borders and Archbishop John Foley, as well as a slew of local luminaries, politicians and celebrities.
His sculpture of Pope John Paul II, which will be erected later this year in the new Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden on the southwest corner of Charles and Franklin streets, is based on a photograph that appeared in The Sun. It depicts the pope embracing two children at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport during his visit to Baltimore in 1995.
"It's an illustration of what I think is Joe's best quality," Keeler said last week. "He's created an image of the pope that shows him very attentive to young people and trying to bring the best out of them."
Serendipity may have opened the door to the church's patronage, but the relationship blossomed because of Sheppard's uncanny skill as a draftsman, mastery of traditional painting technique and painstaking attention to detail.
"Joe's sketches of the sculpture were so much more realistic and lifelike than the other artists we looked at," says landscape architect Scott Rykiel, whose firm designed the prayer garden and who recommended Sheppard's statue for its centerpiece. "His work is just phenomenal."
That kind of skill is part natural gift coupled with years of disciplined effort. Sheppard learned to work hard early on as a scholarship student from Owings Mills at what is now the Maryland Institute College of Art. He was the first member of his family to attend college.
At MICA, the young artist came under the influence of the legendary teacher Jacques Maroger, a painter and former art conservator at the Louvre Museum in Paris who had rediscovered the formulas for the oil-paint medium used by the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters.
Maroger taught his students how to paint with the medium used by Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyke and insisted they learn the technical skills of drawing, perspective and anatomy at a time when modernist abstraction was all the rage.
Sheppard, who was often so poor that he had to trade paintings for food at a local sandwich shop, worked hard to absorb the lessons. By the time he left MICA, his talent had been reinforced by a rigorous grounding in traditional techniques and materials that would equip him to make his way in the world.
Half a century later, Sheppard is still drawing on those skills to create works such as the John Paul II sculpture, which he labored over last summer at his studio in Italy.
The artist met the pontiff several years ago through Archbishop Foley, who was then serving as Vatican communications director in Rome.
The audience lasted only a couple of minutes, and Sheppard says he and his wife, interior designer Rita St. Clair, were both so excited that neither can remember such details as whether the conversation was in English or Italian.
But having experienced the pope's charismatic presence may have helped clarify Sheppard's ideas about how to portray him in bronze. When Rykiel's landscape architects suggested The Sun photograph as a starting point, Sheppard took it from there.
"I only used the photograph as an inspiration," Sheppard says. "It depicts a young African-American girl giving [John Paul II] a big squeeze and a little boy, about the same age, looking the other way. But the pope has a hand on the boy's shoulder, so they're all embracing."
Church officials were delighted by the drawing and asked Sheppard to produce a clay model based on it.
"The image was taken here in Baltimore, and it showed the tender, loving side of the pope," says Mark Potter, executive director of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, which will own and operate the garden. "I think Joe captured all of that."
Once the clay model was approved, Sheppard made a 17-inch-tall plaster model of the sculpture and had the figures cast in bronze.
At that point, most artists would have simply enlarged the plaster model by mechanical means to make a mold for the full-size sculpture. But Sheppard was wary of that procedure.
"When you're doing a monumental piece, the whole perspective changes with size, so I don't like to enlarge mechanically," he explains.
Instead, Sheppard completely re-sculpted the entire figure in clay. First he had a foundry build a steel armature to support the enormous weight of the material. Then he had the armature trucked to his studio, where he worked on the sculpture for much of the summer.
"It was really very, very fatiguing," he recalls. "I had to go up and down ladders with the clay. I was on scaffolding. There was no one to help me. And then it got too heavy to move. It was on a turntable, but under the weight of all that clay I couldn't turn it around. Plus I had problems with the light and couldn't see it properly."
But by September, the giant clay model was finished and Sheppard called the foundry to come out and make a mold of it in his studio. The task involved creating yet another plaster model, this time full-sized, then using it to make a rubber mold and a wax reproduction. After that, several more steps had to be completed before the piece could be cast in bronze.
"It's a very involved process," Sheppard recalls. "You can see how many things can go wrong with it. I worked on it every day last summer, seven days a week, and after dinner, I was so tired I just fell right into bed. But I finally got it finished."
Sheppard says he's pleased with the final result, which, for the time being, will stay at the foundry in Pietrasanta, where storage costs are lower. And he's proud of the hard-earned skills he's mastered that allow him to create lifelike figures in paint, stone or metal with his own two hands.
"I feel obligated to actually work on my sculptures," Sheppard says. "These days, some artists just give the craftsmen in Pietrasanta a photograph of what they want and let them carve the sculptures. Or they get an idea and have someone else manufacture it. To me, that's not art."