SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Meet Harold “Pete” Petersen. He’s a few days shy of 90 and today was his first day back at work after everyone was asked to stay at home because of the pandemic.

He’s also a legendary art teacher in Salt Lake, an influence so strong Highland High School named a wing after him.

For the last 27 years, Pete and his son Mark have been running the Petersen Art Center in Sugarhouse. They were heartbroken when they had to close it down. Today they are both very happy to get back to work teaching art.

“One of the hardest days in 27 years of being here was the last day,” Mark Petersen explains, “So we were always looking forward to a time we could reopen.”

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Pete gives the credit to his son Mark for getting the Art Center ready to protect both him and the students from the virus. He said, “Mark’s a really good planner he made all of this possible.”

Watercolor painted by Pete Petersen

We asked him about being a few days short of his 90th birthday and the decision to come back and teach. He artfully ducked the question but he did tell us, “I love it, it’s what I do, teaching is also very much a gift…Picasso didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘well that’s it I am not going to paint anymore,’ he was in his 90’s when he passed away, and it took passing away to stop him.”

His students appreciate his sense of humor, and his warmth in how he chooses to teach.

Art Center Student shows her painting

Art Student Ilene Stowe said she was very happy to be back, “I’ve been on pins and needles. It took me three years to find him, (Pete) and once I did it was like–okay, I am home. He just has a way of enveloping people.”

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Kimberly Robison, another art student, has safety on her mind, everyone’s, Petes first and foremost, “I get a little nervous, you know you always get a little bit of anxiety inside of you. I think they’ve done a really good job of making sure he’s safe and hopefully all of his students will make sure he’s safe.”

We asked student Jan Holmes who is also part of the high-risk elderly group why she chose to come back, “There was a never a question, I love art, you know what? It’s my therapy.”

Having nine decades under his belt did not make Mr. Petersen cavalier about the virus; he did talk about being careful. He explained that hearing the art students talk about how important art is in their life gives him a reason to live. With a smile he told us “I’m back.”

Maybe the arts will be the savior of all of us; maybe it will be the thing that saves the world.”

We asked him if there was a final thought he wished to share with us, his eyes lit up full of warmth and he explained a story of a musician who said, “Maybe the arts will be the savior of all of us; maybe it will be the thing that saves the world.” Pete smiled, “and so we’re getting a little taste of that, I think.”

Learn more about the Petersen Art Center and the classes they offer.

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Tracy Smith
Tracy T. Smith is an award winning content producer/storyteller. He has a passionate interest in all things narrative and loves writing, photography, cinematography and visual storytelling.