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News . Feature Stories . Peterson '09 designs life of passion and purpose


March 07, 2018

Peterson '09 designs life of passion and purpose

Brian Peterson: 'I'm not actually out here to help anybody. What I'm doing is not helping anyone. I'm just here to love people.'

Brian Peterson meets with students in the Industrial Design department

During his March 2018 trip to CIA, Peterson met with students in Industrial Design. Photo by Robert Muller/CIA.

By Karen Sandstrom

During Brian Peterson’s freshman year at the Cleveland Institute of Art, he showed promise in visual art but decided to major in industrial design. Professor Lane Cooper worked hard to persuade him otherwise.

As the tale goes, Cooper pulled Peterson into her office to call his parents. Their son, she told them, was a born painter, and he was about to make a big mistake by committing to industrial designer. Cooper lost her argument, but she didn’t lose heart. “That’s OK, you’ll be back,” she said. “You’re never too old to be a painter.”

Cooper was right. These days, Peterson is a senior interior designer at Kia Motors in Irvine, California. In his off-hours, he paints portraits of the homeless in his Santa Ana neighborhood. He never forgot Cooper’s prediction that he would return to painting.

“It went into my heart and stayed there for the last 10 years now,” Peterson said during a Lunch on Fridays talk on March 2. He visited CIA as keynote speaker at an open house for prospective students and their parents. 

Peterson talked about his life in automotive design and as an artist devoted to a passion project.

As an industrial design student, Peterson was every bit as successful as he’d been in Cooper’s painting class. He snagged a scholarship with Chrysler when he was just a sophomore. ID chair Dan Cuffaro had a prediction of his own when he met Peterson’s parents: “Your son is going to be CEO of a company,” he said. 

After graduating in 2009, Peterson was hired by Chrysler. They were in bankruptcy at the time, but they encouraged designers to “just experiment and try new things for potential future cars,” Peterson said. “They had this interior that we were working on called Black Rose. It never went anywhere—we were bankrupt. But it was fun for me as a designer stepping out of school to be able to work on a project like this.”

In 2012, he was drawn to Kia because he saw that the South Korean automaker might shake him out of his comfort zone. “I was in this American bubble, so to speak, and I wanted to work for a company that I knew nothing about,” he said. “I wanted to travel, and work with people that are not like me.”

Kia has design offices all over the world, so Peterson travels and—true to his wish—has made friends on those trips. The design office in California isn’t bad, either. “It’s a super modern space, incredibly high tech,” he says. “You’ve got to scan your fingerprint to get in your office.” 

His first project there was working on design of the interior for the 2017 Kia Niro. The hybrid crossover isn’t showy, but Peterson said he’s proud to think about it as part of its owners’ lives.

“Design Is my passion,” Peterson said. “I love sketching. I love rendering and I love working with clay modelers. I love seeing the car come alive.”

On the other side of passion, he said, is purpose. He discovered his on a night in 2016, when he sat home with his wife, reading a book called Love Does by Bob Goff. Peterson said the book asks “what does it look like to make love tangible and what does it look like to just love everybody around you?” 

As he was reading, he heard the familiar screams from one of his homeless neighbors. For the first time, he knew he was being called to do something other than ignore him.

The next day, when Peterson was bicycling home from work, he stopped and introduced himself to the man he’d heard yelling the night before. Matt Faris was 10 years homeless by that time. He had come to California from Kentucky with the hope of being a musician, but he had fallen on hard times. Peterson apologized to Faris for riding by every day without saying hello, and for mentally labeling him “the screaming homeless guy.”

Before the conversation ended, Peterson asked Faris if he could paint his portrait. Faris agreed. Peterson gathered supplies and used a photo reference as he began to compose the painting.

“I'm looking at this image and looking at the canvas, and then looking back at the image and the canvas. My heart started building empathy for this man,” he said. “There was something about spending time and effort and capturing Matt's image that was changing my heart for Matt, and eventually for the homeless community.”

Peterson and his wife, Vanessa, began to make friends with many of their homeless neighbors, and Peterson kept painting. He has made more than 25 portraits, including of couple with five children, who were living in a Chevrolet Suburban. All of them are luminous with color, and come alive with energetic brush strokes.

He founded a non-profit project, Faces of Santa Ana, through which he sells the original portraits as well as prints. Proceeds go to help the subjects in a variety of ways.

But the overall goal isn’t as much about traditional social service as it is about shared humanity. For Peterson, it’s still about loving thy neighbor and recognizing the dignity in every human being.

“As we reveal these paintings to the subject, there's something incredible that happens in their own hearts, and they start to see themselves differently,” he said. “I'm actually holding up a mirror and I'm saying, hey this is who you are. This is the person that I see you as. You are not defined by your homelessness. You have gifts. You're amazing, and you're beautiful.”

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