Student Spotlight: UI painter embeds queerness into Catholic spaces through artwork

B.F.A. painter David Michael Petersen explores growing up in the Catholic church as a queer person through his paintings.


Abby Watkins

David Petersen poses for a portrait at the Visual Arts Building on Sunday, March 6, 2020. Peterson is working toward his Master of Fine Arts in painting.

Madison Lotenschtein, Arts Editor

Paint supplies, cardboard, and scraps of paper lay strewn across B.F.A painter David Michael Petersen’s workspace, as though an artistic twister had come through his corner of the Visual Arts Building. Wearing black jeans, a black sweater, and holding a ceramic coffee mug, Petersen joked that the mess is part of the creative process.

Turning towards painted portraits and a cathedral cut-out on the wall, Petersen explained his interest in faces and the human body — which often includes portraits of himself — and art history, specifically Catholic art. The painter’s most recent work explores the dichotimy of growing up queer in the Catholic church.

“I’ve kind of been thinking queering Catholic spaces,” he said. “So, taking a space that has been traditionally for a specific purpose and very exclusionary, and kind of rewriting how that space is used or can be occupied.”

The influence of the Catholic church is clearly seen throughout Petersen’s work. His B.F.A show — which ran through Saturday, March 7 in the Visual Arts Building — consisted of a colossal cardboard cathedral that held a single painting inside it, while other paintings hung on the walls of the starch-white room.

The painting inside the cathedral was the back of a young boy’s head turned slightly to the left, displaying a shiny earring on the left ear. According to Petersen, the image was inspired by the memory of getting his ear pierced in the third grade, a trend that he begged his mom to let him take part in.

“I remember when we went to the salon to pierce my ear,” Petersen said. “There’s a little jingle so you know which ear to pierce: right is wrong left is right. Because your right ear, if you piece that, that means you’re gay. See you don’t want to do that, so I got my left ear pierced in third grade. I never forgot that.”

To the right of the left-ear pierced boy was a large canvas painting of a man dressed in drag, with a dark dress and dark makeup to match. Painting from a memory once again, Petersen said that the portrait was of himself on New Year’s Eve.

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“This was an outward, loud, obvious expression of queerness and pride in that identity,” he said. “This is the kind of painting where the eyes follow you. It very directly addresses the viewer, like you can’t ignore this painting very easily.”

With graduation on the horizon for this University of Iowa senior, Petersen was excited to say that he had recently been accepted into the Maryland Institute College of Art. Through his time at Iowa, Petersen was inspired by Assistant Professor of painting and drawing, T.J. Dedeaux-Norris, and also learned to go outside his comfort zone of the 5,000 person-town of Jefferson, IA, where Peterson is from.

“I did a lot of growing as a person, also a lot of self-reflection, which I think comes through in my work,” Petersen said. “Also just having the time out of your parents’ home, out of the small town you grew up in, to kind of come into your own, and figure out who you are, and what is important to you as a person.”