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Couple travels America with religious art

May 18, 1997

By RICHARD F. BELISLE

Staff Writer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - After years of traveling around the country banging on church doors trying to sell his religious paintings, Michael Provard is setting up shop in Chambersburg.

Provard, 43, said he's been selling or bartering his work for a meal or place to sleep ever since he graduated from Waynesboro Area High School in the early 1970s.

"I don't consider myself to be particularly religious, but I believe I'm in a ministry," Provard said.

He was born in Detroit and moved to an aunt's house in Quincy, Pa., when he was 16.

Provard flunked art in high school. "I could never follow instructions," Provard said. "I had my own style. Art is in my blood. If you cut me I bleed primary colors."

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He and his girlfriend and fellow artist Theresa Bumgartner, whom he met eight years ago in a Florida laundromat, said they fashion their work from ancient iconographers and Byzantine painters.

"We do it, not because there's a market for it, but because it's in our hearts," Provard said.

Bumgartner said she was a burned-out graphic artist when she met Provard.

He taught her his style of art and they took to the road in his pumpkin-colored van.

Bumgartner said computers have become the artist in graphic art. "There was no longer any room for humans." she said. "I quit doing art until Michael came along. I began to study icons and work of other religious painters and I saw that I was really enjoying painting again."

Bumgartner's paintings show more color and light. Provard's work tends to be darker, more foreboding.

"You can look at Michael's work and see how our lives are going," Bumgartner said.

Being on the road was always hard, but it paid off at times, they said.

The couple worked small-to medium-sized cities. They slept in the van or a cheap motel, depending on business. They found leads by checking the Yellow Pages for churches. When they found a likely prospect Provard would call the pastor and ask to show their work.

Provard said they always found enough work to keep going. Jobs would run from a single painting to fill a niche on a church wall or a mural to cover an entire wall.

"We'd get $400 or $500 for a painting, more for a mural," Provard said. "We had to move around a lot. We'd pick an area and spread out from the motel calling on churches," he said.

"It was feast or famine," Provard said. "Sometimes we'd have to sleep in the van and eat pork and beans and other times we had money to stay in a nice motel. Then it was surf and turf," he said.

"Often we would buy art supplies instead of food," Provard said.

They had their best luck with mainstream churches like Episcopal, Lutheran, or Presbyterian denominations, Provard said. Catholic churches were tough and they never got business from fundamental churches, he said. "We'd never get into a Baptist or a fundamentalist church," he said.

A year ago Provard got homesick for Franklin County so the couple moved into a second-floor apartment in downtown Chambersburg. They hope to stay put for a while and get a brochure printed to help sell their work. "We could mail them to churches," Provard said.

"This life is all we know," Bumgartner said. "We like it and hope to keep on doing it," she said.

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