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Answering the Call to Create

By Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven

L ENEXA —  If you ever catch Mike Debus staring at you, don’t take it personally. The Holy Trinity parishioner here really doesn’t mean to offend. He’s just doing
To contact Debus about his artwork, call (913) 568-6969. He specializes in portraits of families and children and works that promote or celebrate the faith and the Catholic Church.
what he does with every new face he sees: painting you in his mind.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated with people’s faces,” he explained. “Sometimes I’ll catch myself staring at some random person and saying to myself,  ‘great nose’ or ‘strong brow.’”
You’d have to be an artist to understand.
Debus’ parents, raising two very active boys in St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., found it hard to understand where his creative drive came from. After all, they had a history devoted to sports.

An athletic artist

“My dad played professional baseball and was a fantastic all-around athlete,” Debus recalled. “So, my older brother and I naturally spent a majority of our youth playing baseball, golfing and trying our hands at other sports. ”
Debus’ father had a vague memory of drawing pictures on his own notebooks when he was in school, but marveled when his son, a gifted athlete in his own right, went beyond notebook graphics and took every art elective he could — excelling in each.
Loving both pursuits equally, Debus’ dream was to combine the two.
 “And so in my early years, and even through college,” he said, “my subject matter, when I drew or painted, was always sports.”
Debus interned for Lenexa company, Gear for Sports, between his junior and senior year at KU, where he studied illustration. After graduating, he got a full-time job there as a graphic artist and seemed on track to realize his dream.
After several years of creating designs on a computer, however, he had to admit, “I was working for a great company, but I didn’t feel like I was fulfilled.”
Debus missed working with his hands and, when Gear for Sports sponsored art shows open to employees, he took the opportunity to create and enter portrait drawings. The positive responses he received from co-workers and friends made him rethink his dream.
“These art shows rekindled my love of portrait art,” he explained. “And, long story short, I took a leap of faith and left Gear for Sports to attempt becoming a freelance artist. ”

A calling to teen ministry

Outside work, Debus’ faith life was also heading in another direction —teen ministry. He was recruited to be a core member of the new youth ministry program at Holy Trinity. When Kris Walters and Jeremy Aranda took over the ministry, they found an asset in Debus.
Walters described Debus as having “a tremendous compassionate heart,” and explained that his appeal to teens stems from his ability to balance sincerity with humor.
“He likes to go deep, to be serious about our God, our Catholicism,” he explained. “But he can have fun the very next minute and find the humorous side of almost anything. ”
Life Teen participant Kelly Gallagher, a student at Benedictine College in Atchison and a recent graduate of Shawnee Mission South High Scool in Overland Park, agreed and said Debus ’ commitment to his art is inspiring.
“In America, most people are driven by success and making money. But Mike Debus is probably happier than most all of those people because he ’s doing what he loves to do,” he explained. “And that’s the best lesson he could give us teens.”
Involvement in Life Teen energized Debus and strengthened his faith. He continued to pursue his plan to become a portrait artist and studied with some of the best instructors in the area. But just as he thought he knew his direction, another road sign appeared.

A detour to religious art

Debus met Father Don Braukman, a priest from Minnesota, through a mutual friend from Gear for Sports.  When Debus went freelance, Father Braukmann commissioned from him a painting of the Divine Mercy for his parish in Minnesota. It was Debus ’ first venture into religious art, and he found the experience appealing.
Another opportunity came one night when Debus was at a young adult group dinner. He was introduced to then-Archbishop James P. Keleher as an artist specializing in portraits, and the Archbishop said, “I’ve been thinking about having a portrait done of myself.”
Debus ended up producing two portraits of Archbishop Keleher, one each in pastel and graphite. Then he was commissioned to do a graphite portrait of Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
In the meantime, Father Braukmann was so satisfied with the results of his Divine Mercy painting, that he approached Debus again to do a painting of  Pope Benedict XVI.
“I did the portrait and we decided it would be a good idea to make reproductions and try to sell those, ” Debus recalled. “That idea took off — a number of the reproductions were sold in Father Don’s archdiocese, and now a number also hang in churches in our archdiocese.”
Father Tom Dolezal of Holy Trinity saw the rendering of Pope Benedict and thought he would like paintings of popes John XXIII and John Paul I as well. He commissioned Debus to do the work.

A place to do God’s work

As Debus was led deeper into the calling of religious art, the perfect environment to nourish that calling was provided by nothing short of a miracle.
Debus had done some freelance graphic work for John Menghini, former president of Gear for Sports, who is also on the board of regents for St. James Academy in Lenexa. A patron of the arts, Menghini was impressed with Debus ’ commitment to make a living with his art and offered him an opportunity to set up a studio at St. James where fellow Catholic artist Jason Jenecki was already established.
“And lo and behold, it worked out with everybody and here I am at Saint James,” said Debus. “It is a definite blessing.”
Menghini also commissioned Debus to do a painting of the Last Supper for the Academy. His residency at St. James has enabled Debus to pursue his love of art, deepen his faith, and expand his teen ministry.
Students at St. James have the unique experience of seeing the artists live their faith at daily Mass and prayer, through the artwork that hangs in the halls and in the studio where the artists have an open-door policy.
“I just draw and paint every day and Jason does the same, and if the students get something out of it, then, ultimately, the good Lord is behind it all, ” said Debus.

A new focus: family, faith & the church

At St. James, Debus said he has developed a clear idea of what he wants to convey through his art: “family, faith and the church.”
The best example of that focus is a piece Debus recently did for Church of the Ascension School in Overland Park.
As a parting gift, Ascension’s 2006 graduating class commissioned Debus to paint a mural for the school’s entrance hall. Debus came up with the theme for the painting — Jesus interacting with schoolchildren — and used Ascension students as his models.
“To me it’s a striking, powerful piece,” said pastor Msgr. Thomas Tank. “It brings Christ face-to-face with actual kids, children from our school experiencing Christ in a very personal way. ”
Maureen Reuter, parent in charge of the project, said the finished piece brought tears to her eyes and said that working with Debus gave her a new perspective on art.
“Mike’s been an example to me. I don’t look at things the same anymore,” she explained. “When I look at art, I’m thinking, ‘This is something that I can be prayerful with. I can be inspired and get closer to God. ’”

Coming full circle

His love for sports, while no longer a theme in his artwork, has played an essential role in giving Debus the discipline he needs to pursue his dream. That discipline was noted by Walters after watching Debus run his first marathon this year.
 “It was just impressive and inspiring. He took the challenge personally and not only did he complete it, he almost ran a sub-four hour marathon. You see that same dedication in the way he approaches his craft, ” Walters explained. “He doesn’t punch a clock, he doesn’t have a boss, but he has personal discipline that is really rare, and there’s a lot to learn from that.”
As his artwork becomes more widely known, Debus is getting more commissions. He’s looking forward to painting portraits of different popes for each meeting room in a new facility at Holy Trinity, and he ’s been commissioned to paint a six-foot Mary for a church in Minnesota.
With God’s continued blessings Debus believes he’s on his way to realizing his dream of being a successful freelance artist, but following a dream is always a challenge.
“Some days when I wake up I’ll think, ‘What in the world am I doing?’ Then I’ll get to work and I’ll be doing what I do and I’ll say, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be,’” he said. “I feel like in order for me to be happy, I have to do what I’ve been called to do. I think all of us have to do that.”
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Leaven photo by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Jesus with students
This monochromatic oil painting stands 4 feet tall by 6 feet wide and hangs in the entryway of Ascension School in Overland Park. Debus was asked to do a piece depicting Jesus with children by the 2006 graduating class of the school as their class gift to the school. With the help of Ascension parishioner Maureen Reuter, a photo shoot of seven Ascension students, former and current, was organized and served as the basis of the painting.