MOORESVILLE ‒ Manuel Pena remembers the first time he drew a picture of a horse for his wife. She cried.
In the two years they’ve been married, Pena has made more than a dozen pictures. And while they don’t elicit tears of happiness anymore, they do evoke a sense of pride for JoAnn Pena, especially now that he’s using his work to help orphans in Haiti.
Manuel was a technical illustrator for much of his career using ink and paper to draw pictures and diagrams of complex equipment. It wasn’t what many would call creative, but he always had a desire to draw, though it took a push to get him started.
Manuel and JoAnn, both having gone through the death of a spouse, found each other. They were surprised to find how much they had in common and how well their beliefs matched. While on a trip to Florida, Manuel saw a picture of a horse and boasted he could copy it. Unbeknownst to him, she bought the artwork and handed it to him upon their return and made him prove it.
“She didn’t realize I could do it,” he said.
Even then, he didn’t truly believe in himself either. He rarely showed her or anyone else much of his follow-up work, though he gave away a few as gifts and hung some up in the house without telling guests it was his. He also spent a lot of time teaching himself new techniques.
But now his art serves a higher purpose.
A new mission
In November 2016, Manuel jokes they spent their honeymoon in Haiti, a place JoAnn had been several times for mission work.
“Seeing the need touched my heart,” he said. “They are a resilient people who recovered from a flood, and they were still able to have meetings in their cinderblock room.”
JoAnn shared her testimony with the women, while Manuel worked with the men.
“We shared with them hope and that they are not forgotten,” he said, adding they wanted to share God’s love with the people and tell them things can get better.
JoAnn has been to Haiti, specifically Cap-Haïtien, north of Port-au-Prince, 11 times to share her testimony, encourage women, bring supplies and funds and volunteer with a local pastor there.
“We want to bring hope and help to Haiti through God’s love in action,” JoAnn said.
They also work to sponsor students to be able to pay their way to go to school, including uniforms and supplies. The volunteers also work to make sure the money goes where it’s intended.
The pastor she and the others partner with is now working to build a church and an orphanage.
Thanks to some help from a handful of other volunteers, including Alan and Laddy Aiken and Kim and John Bowers, the group is now working on starting a nonprofit, He Can Move Mountains – Ministry to Haiti.
“Every day we want to give them hope,” Manuel said. “They’ve been knocked down by poverty so many times. It’s heart-wrenching. We want to do whatever we can do.”
Their mission is inspired after Matthew 17:20: “He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’”
And one way to obtain the resources needed to make things happen is through Manuel’s paintings.
Sharing his art
Kim Bowers, one of the members of the group working to establish the nonprofit, has a booth at Main Street Antiques and Design Gallery. She was able to get permission to have Manuel’s paintings installed on a portable wall at the entry of the large facility. All of the proceeds from the art sold there will go to the ministry.
“It gets lots of great traffic and is something unique,” Kim said of why she wanted to sell his paintings at the antiques gallery where she also sells children’s toys.
Among Manuel’s works hanging there are birds, animals and American flags.
“The eagle with the American flag is a common subject,” he said, noting he has versions in black and white as well as in color. “I like to draw tractors, barns, old houses, though I’m starting to diversify.”
He has drawings that include a bee and another with a hummingbird that have different types of lines than his usual style.
His aim is to one day start drawing the West with cowboys or to expand to pictures of flowers.
“I’m finding my niche,” he said.
Manuel works out of his home studio, spending hours and sometimes days on a piece.
He starts out drawing on paper then uses graphite to put the sketch onto canvas or illustration paper. From there, he decides whether to use ink or paint to finish it off.
“They have colored pens with different brushes and tips,” he said. “It brings a different contrast.”
Many of the skills are ones he learned through technical drawings, such as using triangles to make straight lines. But they also ensure each painstaking detail is done as accurately as possible.
“I don’t start drawing without God’s blessing,” he said, adding he feels it must be God’s will with how everything is coming together. “God’s become my CEO. It’s rewarding. At this point in my life, my age, I have a tremendous purpose. This is not a monetary thing; it brings tremendous pleasure.”