On Jan. 28, 2005, Mattituck native Joe Sullivan walked into Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., where he made the decision to dedicate his life to prayer, art and helping others.
As a Benedictine monk, Mr. Sullivan became Brother Peter when he took vows in 2006. Before he joined Saint John’s, Brother Peter stocked shelves at a pet store and had a lawn-mowing business.
But when life became too busy, Brother Peter, who had always been interested in religion, decided he would try living in a monastery for at least three months. He has now been at Saint John’s Abbey nearly 12 years.
When he first became a monk, Brother Peter, now 42, spent his days doing peace and justice work. After Hurricane Katrina hit, he went on a service trip to Alabama to provide relief to residents. He also did work to assist the Midwest’s Chippewa Indians and took care of older monks in a retirement center.
In 2007, Brother Peter’s sister, Nina Sullivan, passed away. He began drawing scenes of memories they had shared, subsequently discovering that he had a hidden talent as an artist.
“It almost seemed like a gift through her death,” Brother Peter said during a recent visit to his hometown. “Now I don’t know how I ever went 33 years without [art].”
Brother Peter said the other monks took notice of his newfound ability. After seeing his drawings, an art teacher at Saint John’s Abbey encouraged Brother Peter to take classes. In 2012, he began studying art full time at Saint John’s University, a school in Collegeville that was built in the 1800s by Benedictine monks. Three years later, he began a four-year apprenticeship program at The Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art in Minneapolis.
Brother Peter said he is the first monk the monastery has sent to school in order to become a professional artist. In addition to drawing, he paints and does sculptures.
“At first, they weren’t going to send me,” he said. “The committee was split 50/50 on the vote to let me go.”
Brother Peter said Saint John Abbey’s abbot, who gets final say in committee votes, decided to take a chance on him.
Now one year into his apprenticeship, Brother Peter has created even more art but says he’s grown tired of marketing his pieces for sale.
“I thought, ‘Why not just put my art in the world so that way it’s like karma?’ Put positive and loving vibes in the world and it will come back,” he said.
Brother Peter said he doesn’t mind not receiving a paycheck so long as he knows his art is helping people — and perhaps even attracting them to the monastery.
“I pass homeless people on the streets in the middle of winter on my way to school to go sit in a warm studio to draw,” he said. “I think, ‘How does this help when there is dying and suffering in the world?’ ”
Brother Peter has approached monastery leaders to determine ways to help others through his art. One suggested he paint murals inside homeless shelters. Another said he could give art lessons to children in disadvantaged areas.
“I want to bring art to the people who can’t afford much because, in a way, it seems art has become something for the wealthy,” Brother Peter said.
Brother Peter said he derives inspiration for his pieces largely from the silence and solitude of nature. He said being alone in the outdoors allows him to reach a point of silence and stillness you can’t feel in a church.
Many of Brother Peter’s drawings feature a solitary wolf or flock of birds flying or nesting in branches. Lately, he has also been doing abstract work inspired by both the microscopic and macroscopic world.
“I like to juxtapose those two sorts of images together,” he said.
Photo caption: Brother Peter, a Mattituck native, discovered he had a talent for art after his sister died and he began drawing scenes of memories. (Credit: Sara Schabe)