Peter Lodoen painting Grant Wood’s 1930 portrait called American Gothic. Photo by Bill Vossler
What do you call a man whose portraits of Pope John Paul II grace postage stamps of the African nation of Botswana, was a member of the U.S. Army, a Peace Corps volunteer who was stung numerous times by scorpions, a science teacher, Lutheran pastor, passionate stamp collector, and baseball fanatic who oil paints classic paintings every evening while listening to baseball?
Oh yes, a man who speaks six languages.
What else could you call Peter Lodoen except Renaissance man?
“It all started because I was drafted into the Army in 1970,” Peter said. “Otherwise I would probably have stayed here in St. Cloud as a baseball coach and teacher and would now be retiring,” the 68-year-old said, instead of having lived in Germany, Botswana, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic for 25 years. “In Germany I found overseas living interesting and enjoyed learning to speak a foreign language.”
In 1973 the Peace Corps sent him to Botswana. “I was a science teacher, and Botswana needed science teachers.”
While teaching there for two years he learned the Setswana and Afrikaans languages, followed by a year in a teacher training school in Nigeria founded by Baptist missionaries, teaching young men how to be teachers. The only foreign country where he lived that he did not learn the language. “I was only there nine months and didn’t expect to stay long. Also, English was well-spoken there.”
“In Africa I was most surprised about how barren the land was. You hear about deserts, but when you go and live in a desert, and see the horizon in all four directions all the time, it’s surprising, even when you know it’s going to be a surprise. You can see the sunrise and sunset every day, and the Milky Way every night.”
In St. Cloud, Peter said, life isn’t much different from that in Rockville or other towns, but in Africa, “It’s a different world altogether. No electricity, or running water, or toilets in the houses. It always fascinated me that nature could be just outside your house, with the lifestyle of people the same today as forever. People depend completely on local resources and such. It’s a quality of life you don’t have here. Not better, but real.”
In Botswana, Peter found few visuals to send back to his parents. “I didn’t have a camera and don’t know how I would have gotten my film developed if I‘d had one. Village life was pleasant, but very quiet, so without television and radio, I began to sketch and draw so I could send something back.” He used his experience from a three-credit class in drawing from St. Cloud State University.
Peter Lodoen showed the photo he used to paint La condesa, by d’Haussonville, and all the detail. Photo by Bill Vossler
Among his first works was Livingstone’s Tree in Manyana, Botswana. In Nigeria, Peter started painting in oil. “At first I tried to paint trees, huts, the landscape, everything where I lived. One day I drew a person’s face and never stopped painting or sketching faces. They‘re always more interesting. Nigerians asked for portraits of family members, so that‘s how that all began.” He still paints portraits today. Many have been of Africans, but he has also done friends and relatives.
He spent 1982-1986 in the Central Africa Republic as a pastor to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Central African Republic. He learned to speak French and Sango. “It had been a French colony, and the lingua franca spoken along the Congo River and its tributaries, deep into the interior, is Sango, a trade language.”
Later Peter returned to work as a pastor in Botswana. “Botswana is the freest country I’ve ever been to,” he said, “There’s a certain freedom to living in a warm, sunny place. You never really live inside. You never have to dress against the weather. It’s a simpler way of life than we have here.”
In 1987 Pope John Paul II was scheduled to visit Botswana in September. An avid stamp collector, Peter joined the Botswana Philatelic Society where a friend knew of his painting prowess and recommended him to paint the Pope. “Too little time remained to issue a postage stamp, but a commemorative cover would be possible if a portrait painter could be located. I was thus ‘discovered.’ Within a few days I began work on an oil-on-canvas portrait of the Pope.”
Peter had used pictures to paint portraits of many people in Botswana. He found a picture of the Pope with his hands outstretched up high in a gesture of greeting. “Many places in Africa both hands in the air is a greeting,” he said.
The authorities discovered the Pope wasn’t coming until a year later, Sept. 13 and 14, 1988, so they asked Peter to paint a second portrait, with the pontiff attired in a white robe and red cape.”
He finished it in the U.S., sent it, and upon returning to Botswana, discovered they had been cancelled because the Pope’s visit was determined to be a religious event and not an affair of state.”
“I wasn’t particularly disappointed, because I had been surprised when they asked me to put the Pope on a stamp, so I wasn’t particularly surprised when it was rejected.”
But then Rotswana’s Vice President Peter Mmusi stepped in, saying the Vatican was a country with its own stamps, so the Pope should get full four-stamp honors, like other countries, so Peter created two more portraits.
For the next decade, Peter regularly painted portraits that became 36 Botswana stamps, produced in groups of four: the pope, trains, 100th anniversary of Marconi’s wireless, and others – including poisonous snakes.
“At the Botswana Philatelic Society meeting we talked about which snakes should be on stamps. The four most common poisonous snakes are the puff adder, Egyptian cobra, boomslang and black mamba. The snake unit of the Botswana Defense Force captures poisonous snakes when people see a poisonous snake in the house or yard. The snakes are taken to a serpentarium, or snake pit.
Peter was familiar with snakes. “At the garbage pit on a calm night I heard a hiss, which I heard very clearly, almost like a cat’s hiss. One more step and I would have trod on a puff adder.”
Most snakes avoid humans and slink away as soon as possible, except the black mamba. “They’re 4 yards long, and they can raise up a third of their body. I’ve seen them strike car windows as we were driving by.” Several of Peter’s dogs were bitten by cobras and died. Cobras often spit in the eyes of people and dogs, causing temporary blindness.
“Everywhere in Africa the grass is cut away around the house. People are deathly afraid of snakes, but the most dangerous animals in the world are mosquitoes and ticks. Many people die of tick bite fever and malaria, though there’s no malaria in Botswana.”
Except for the mamba, snakes don’t try to bite people. Some 80 percent of snake bites occur by someone stepping on a snake. Most try to get out of way, but sometimes they’re not quick enough.
Peter also did a series of four Botswana tourism stamps showing the animals – eagles, crocodiles, elephants, flamingos and zebras. “My favorite stamp has elephants on the railroad tracks, stopping the train. The elephants didn’t want to move just for a train, so it had to engage its whistle and take a run at them a couple of times. The radio stamps were pretty good, too. The people in my village used radios all the time.”
This sheet shows 26 of the Botswana stamps using Peter Lodoen’s portraits, including the ones of the Pope (upper left). Photo by Bill Vossler
As did Peter, up to 18 hours a day, he said. “On an average day, I’d do any physical labor as early as possible, building, repairs, and the like. About 9 a.m., BBC radio’s Off the Shelf, read books from beginning to end. So I‘d stop what I was doing and listen to books like Tess of the D‘Urbervilles, or The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I’d paint until it came on again at a quarter to four. By then the house would be too hot, and I’d do outside work until evening.”
Of the African countries where Peter lived, he said Botswana is by far the best. “Botswana is more or less honest, much like here in the United States. Nigeria and the Central African Republic are riddled with corruption. The average people are hassled by police all the time, every day. Anyone can be targeted – if you’re a different religion, different ethnic group, from a different country, you can be hounded mercilessly. It’s a very unpleasant aspect of life in those countries.”
“Botswana remains a successful country by African standards, with a good supply of quality diamonds and honest people, so people from neighboring countries want to work there, though Botswana is trying to have only Botswanans work and get rid of foreigners. It’s an idea that’s always failed.”
“I like to paint. That’s what kept me going through all my years in Africa. There was never a day I didn’t have anything to do because I could always paint. Painting is not a question of talent, but of time and interest.”