Historical artist Elmer M. King was born on July 6, 1910 in Peoria, IL and was a lifelong resident of the Peoria area. He attended Peoria schools where he first discovered his talent for art. While still in his teens, he studied oil painting with Eric Arons a widely respected Peorian pictorial artist. Elmer later took a correspondence course from the Federal School of Art.
From his marriage to his wife Bernadine (Bernie) Frances (Seibel) King on December 31, 1934, Elmer supported his wife and daughter, Judith (Judie) Anne (born February 10, 2936) through painting houses and buildings and being a milk man. During this time, he, Bernie and Judie lived in a little garage house (literally, a garage that had been turned into a house) in the South Side of Peoria. The house had no running water. It was a slight step up for them to own their own home (even if it was a garage), because most of their friends and family rented and lived with lots of other family members. To this day, when Bernie talks about their first house, she calls it a dollhouse, because she and Elmer had it fixed up so much that visitors and passers-by called it a dollhouse. Unfortunately, when you drive by the house today, it doesn’t resemble the dollhouse that it was in the 1930s.
Bernie and Elmer wanted to expand their family, but knew there wasn’t any room in the little house. The year Judie was born (1936) is still on the record books for having the coldest winter and the hottest summer, so Bernie was not keen on trekking across a frozen yard to hang diapers out to dry, only to have to chip the ice off of them later. She laughs when she remembers that she told Elmer, “We are not having any more children until we have indoor plumbing!”
So, they scrimped and saved to buy a plot of land in “North” (at the time) Peoria where they could build a house. In 1939 and 1940, they built their house in what is now called Peoria Heights. They moved into the house on February 14, 1942 (4 days after little Judie’s 6th birthday), and, ever true to her word, little Jacqueline (Jackie) Sue was born almost 10 months later, on December 13, 1942.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing in those 10 months. Elmer was a manual laborer who had to work hard and tax his body to bring money into the home. It was during the spring of 1942, when Elmer was working on his car that the engine caught on fire. Elmer tried to put the fire out, and was severely burned on his right hand and arm (he was right handed). He was told by two doctors that he would never be able to use his right hand again. Bernie said how frightening that news was, because without the use of his arm, he would never work again, and they had just bought a house and had a second child coming in a few short months.
But, Elmer didn’t give up. Ever the hard-worker, and by God’s grace, he pushed himself to endure months of painful physical therapy. Within six months, he had regained the use of his right hand! His “PTL” (Praise The Lord) signature on each of his paintings and pencil sketches testifies to his great appreciation to God for the re-gifting of the use of his right hand. Elmer was ever grateful, always acknowledging God’s healing power both in his physical body and even more so his spiritual nature. Elmer’s thankfulness to God for restoring his ability to create art was constant.
It was thirty years later before he seriously began painting again at the insistence of his wife Bernadine, daughters Judie and Jackie, and with his own inclination to “try his hand” at his life-long joy. It was a Christmas gift from his daughter Judie in 1971 — a picture she painted for him, from a photo of one of his granddaughters holding her newborn baby sister & a set of brushes and paint with a note that said, “If I can do this, so can you!” — that started him on his artwork journey. The timing was perfect, because, he had just “retired” (Bernie is quick to point out, that there was no pension from being a house painter) and had time to paint.
His first entry, an oil painting of one of his grandsons (James) brought him an honorable mention. This considerably increased his ambition to continue and he quickly became a frequent winner at art competitions in Peoria and surrounding area art shows. After 1984 he chose not to enter any more competitions having felt he had won his share of awards.
From 1971 to 1990, he was frequently commissioned to paint pictures, which, Bernie points out, was God’s way of providing a pension for Elmer. “God knew that Elm didn’t have a pension. So, he used his talents to provide for us, and it keeps providing just when I need it, even after Elm’s homegoing.”
Most of his paintings were inspired from black and white photos, birds (which his wife Bernadine loved) or oil paintings and pencil sketches of his 7 grandchildren. Elmer was tenacious about the history of each photo, and his research was extensive as he brought each photo to living color from personal memory of the times, research within public records and conversation with his peers.
Sketching the photo to the canvas would take seven to ten days, and well over four weeks to apply acrylic paints under his trusted “Northern Light” in the studio he created in the attic of his home.
The application of color and the amount of detail found in each painting adds continued interest for the viewer. Like D. Omer Seaman, the Indian artist said, “A picture will never be painted better than it is drawn or better than the knowledge of the subject. A picture should be painted so that others understand and enjoy it.”
On April 5, 1990, after having lunch with Bernie and critiquing his newest, almost-finished piece of artwork (he frequently did this around the lunch table with Bernie), he went out to do a little yardwork. About 10 minutes later, when Bernie looked outside to check on him, she saw him lying flat on the ground. He had suffered a major heart attack and died immediately. He was almost 80 years old when he went to be with the Lord to thank Him in person for all He had done. At the time of his death, he & Bernie had two daughters, seven grandchildren and almost six great-grandchildren (the seventh was born three weeks after his death). Now, Elmer and Bernie have 21 great-grandchildren & six great-great grandchildren. As his wife Bernie says, “That’s not a bad legacy from two poor church mice from the South Side of Peoria!” Elmer’s talent, legacy of love of God, love of family and love of those around him will live on.
Praise the Lord.