Feature story: The accidental artist

Painting career a pleasant surprise for retired firefighter

It's a rare painter who does a self-portrait of himself fighting a fire in a furniture store. But then, Jerome Peters has followed an unusual artistic trajectory.

A longtime Palo Alto resident, he battled blazes for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District for 30 years. He served as battalion chief for the last decade, and headed the department task force that responded to the Oklahoma City bombing.

Peters retired in 1996. Then, quite unexpectedly, he found himself beginning to paint and draw. It began when his wife, Sandy, was working at Foothill College and encouraged him to take an art class there.

"I just kept taking them," Peters says, sitting in his front parlor. Some 50 classes later, he still seems pleasantly surprised by the appeal of creating art.

"There's no problems while you're doing it," he says. "The world goes away."

Peters took every art class he could at Foothill, including figure drawing, pastels, color theory and portraiture. He found instructor Charles "Skip" Cantwell especially inspirational. Ultimately Peters gravitated toward acrylic painting, the focus of his current exhibition at the Portola Art Gallery in Menlo Park.

In a garden studio behind the Peters home, canvases illustrate the artist's path. When he began painting, he liked firefighting subjects. One canvas shows an antique brass helmet from Paris.

"Instead of painting vases with flowers in them, I was doing coats and helmets," he says.

Others are dramatic firefighting scenes. One painting depicts Peters and another firefighter laboring to put out a serious blaze at the Flegel's furniture store in Menlo Park in the 1980s. Clouds of blue-gray smoke nearly fill the canvas, contrasting with Peters' red helmet.

Over time, Peters branched out -- in part because there's only so much demand for fiery scenes, he says with a grin. Other paintings in his studio and home are travel views, paintings of animals, and commissioned portraits.

His current focus, which can be seen at the Portola Art Gallery: old trucks. At the moment, Peters is drawn to painting vintage trucks set in rural backgrounds.

"I couldn't tell you why," he says of his truck fascination. "But once you start looking, they're everywhere."

The "Old Trucks" series began a few years ago, when Sandy Peters spotted two old trucks and a pair of tractors parked at a ranch near the coast. She eagerly showed her husband, who was most taken with a pale-blue Chevy truck he has since painted often, capturing its round fenders and license plate hanging askew.

When Peters finds a truck he likes, he returns to see it in different seasons and lights. One sported an American flag; those paintings sold well after the 9/11 attacks. Most are dented and have broken windows or other scars.

"They have more character, and you think about what the truck did during its career," he says, adding: "I've had pick-up trucks most of my life. As a firefighter, you're always doing things with trucks."

Other projects have included a mural that Peters painted over the pool at the now-demolished Elks Club building in Palo Alto. It had a South Seas theme, with palm trees.

Peters often works from photos, occasionally altering them a bit in Photoshop by taking out telephone poles and other intruders. But he says he doesn't like to alter photos much. "Normally I like the photo for what it is."

Peters joined the Portola Art Gallery last year, after being chosen by a jury. Alice Weil, co-director of the gallery, says she particularly likes his truck paintings.

"Jerry finds the beauty and character in these abandoned old metal workhorses and expresses their personality through his work," she says.

Peters says he feels lucky to be a part of the gallery, adding that he believes he was in the right place at the right time -- the gallery was looking for artists, and he applied just at that moment.

"If you want to get into a gallery, you (usually) have to constantly market yourself," he says. "I don't want to market. I want to paint."

What: "Old Trucks," an exhibition of paintings by Palo Alto artist Jerome Peters

Where: Portola Art Gallery, Allied Arts Guild, 75 Arbor Road, Menlo Park

When: Through April 30, open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to or call 650-321-0220.

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