Along the way, Petersen had a religious experience. "The drive to use drugs was removed," he recalls.
Grateful for the spiritual assistance he received, Petersen promised that he would do anything to keep clean and sober. About a month after this promise, Petersen was preparing for a trip to Wisconsin. His travel companion had packed some paints.
"I felt like I wanted paints also. I bought some stuff to paint on." After arriving at his destination, Petersen "just started painting. It just came out."
Petersen had never taken art classes but was interested in art as a child. He grew up on a farm in the Midwest without an indoor bathroom, plumbing or hot water until he was 9 years old. As an adult, a lack of money and artistic materials didn't stop Petersen from creating. He made things out of mud, icicles, snow and whatever else he could find.
As he began to paint in 1977, the works were not created from his desire. Instead, Petersen describes a process of prayer, meditation and a written letter to his Higher Power in which he asked the spiritual presence to work through him. That process continues today. In his artist statement, Petersen writes, "Each painting is offered up as a prayer ... to be used for healing wherever it is needed."
Using materials that may include linen, oils, acrylics, inks, sand, glass and wood, Petersen is not sure how a piece will look when it is completed. "These are not the way I personally want them done. I ask my Higher Power what is needed. I try to get out of the way and do what I am led to do. I have to paint when I am nudged."
His latest prod began in June. "I asked, 'What is this nudge I am getting?' I felt I was supposed to paint the guardian angels of national parks. I tried to pay attention and got out my atlas. I got the strong sense of what to paint."
Seven months later, his pieces have been chosen for an exhibition at the Campus Christian Center Art Gallery at the UA.
Petersen believes he was guided to paint these pieces, because the parks need assistance. He hopes people will think about the sacredness of the parks. "Our whole planet is suffering. ... We need (the parks) for spiritual refreshment and strength."
When looking at Petersen's guardian-angel paintings, they do not exhibit the typical shape and form of angels, but instead look abstract. "It's a matter of speed," he explains. "The faster the speed, the more abstract. It's like the difference between steam, water and ice. If you slow down, you see more of a form. This is looking at a faster speed of the essence of angels."
Petersen accepts the fact that there may be skeptics who question his work: "I don't get bent out of shape about it. Every person is entitled to their own opinion."
Many opinions about Petersen's abstract works have been positive, earning him many juried spots at museums and galleries. His resume is long, with lists of solo, two-person and group exhibits. His works have been shown alongside Roy Lichtenstein art at Southwest Minnesota State University in 2003 and 2004, and with Andy Warhol's at the Artbanque Gallery in Minneapolis in 1990. In 1993, he was selected to represent Arizona at the VSA Gallery in Washington, D.C., in the Art Across America exhibit that opened on the Inauguration Day of President Bill Clinton. Petersen has also taught the class Artist's Resume, Portfolio and More at Pima Community College for the past 11 years.
Petersen says he is most proud of being twice selected to appear in Art in America, an annual guide to museums, galleries and artists. He says only 1,000 artists are selected for the guide by Dr. Sharon Lippman, former curator of the King Tut exhibit.
But with all of his honors and exhibitions, Petersen remains humble about his craft. "I want people to understand these are not my intellect. They are channeled paintings with God. I am not ashamed to say that. These come from a higher dimension of life."
When asked why he believes he was chosen for this work, Petersen offers up an explanation that mirrors his philosophy. "I am willing to surrender and work with a Higher Power to be a useful channel and give back to the world. I think we all have a genie inside of us. It's something that we are born to do. When we try to cooperate with God, we begin to do that purpose."
Guardian Angels of National Parks is on display at the Campus Christian Center Art Gallery at the University of Arizona, 715 N. Park Ave., through Monday, March 12. Viewing hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Call 623-7575 for information.