An art project, an unlikely friendship and a veteran facing the end
By RENEE RICHARDSON, Brainerd Dispatch
LITTLE FALLS, Minn. (AP) -- Their friendship seemed unlikely even to them. One, a military man turned middle school teacher who is uncomfortable when his hair gets in shouting range of his ears. The other, a well-traveled artist who loves to cook and has his hair long enough for a ponytail.
But hour after hour in the gentle light of a Little Falls art studio, they forged a friendship. Their time together so congenial they could have been fast friends had they met as young men. But even now they know they are on borrowed time. The clock has been ticking since they met.
It all started with a diving helmet, the Brainerd Dispatch reported.
"That is how Ray came to be here," Bob Mueller said of Ray Stumpf.
Artist Charles Kapsner was talking about painting a diver's helmet as he worked on the naval installment in his multi-year art project to depict all five military branches. Mueller and Kapsner were Little Falls classmates, graduating in 1970. Mueller said he knew a Navy diver who could be a model for the massive oil painting at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery. That's when the nearly 24-year Navy veteran Stumpf entered the picture.
Different men who both value self-discipline, share an appreciation for jazz music and old cars.
"What's unique -- different perspectives politically -- but now they both are bonding," Mueller said. "You never would have thought of it but what a good friend he is in a short time."
Stumpf donned his deep indigo blue Navy uniform with white sailor's hat and sat motionless before the canvas. Kapsner stood nearby with brush and palette in hand to capture the profile before him. During the sessions, they shared stories about growing up in Little Falls, about biking everywhere and feeling safe after dark.
As Stumpf sat for the painting, adding his likeness and humanity to the image, he hopes it will be of comfort to his family when they visit the committal hall after his death.
Five months ago, Stumpf stopped chemotherapy treatments. It was making him sicker than it was doing any good, he said. He decided to let the cancer run its course.
He was diagnosed with colon cancer in July 2010. It was found in a routine screening. The cancer was in a good location for a surgical response. Stumpf had everything going for him. But the cancer metastasized to his liver.
His doctor was joking with him and said if Stumpf went a year, he'd write an article on his patient's attitude.
"I said, 'Well, start writing,'" Stumpf recalled. "So I'm going to hold him to it if I make it a year. Realistically, I understand cell division and the fact that I've just got to appreciate each day I have."
Being involved in the art project to honor the service branches was a way Stumpf said he could continue to contribute, to add value and to enjoy.
"I've actually named my cancer the Oddly Wrapped Gift, and it has been for many reasons," he said. "This is one example of the gift to have the opportunity to do this, to document a bit of history I helped create by serving my country."
Stumpf continues to get up each morning and spend a couple of hours a day at the school where he loved seeing light bulbs go off in young minds, even though he's retired because of his medical condition.
"Because he loves kids," Mueller said, adding that affection is returned. His middle school kids put together a Relay of Life team in his honor, becoming one of the top earners last year in Morrison County. A Christian middle school children group invited Stumpf to a prayer session. They prayed for him.
The affection is not limited to the schoolchildren Stumpf reached in his classroom or his mentoring. After substituting in his classroom and being impressed with Stumpf's program, a retired science teacher nominated Stumpf for science teacher of the quarter. Stumpf received the recognition even though as an industrial technology teacher, he wasn't a science teacher. At a living wake -- a celebration of his life initiated by his school principal -- people stood in line for more than an hour to hug him or shake his hand. Awkward at first to present as an idea to his family, Stumpf said it turned into a wonderful experience.
"Had I never had cancer and or been diagnosed, I would never have experienced those things," Stumpf said. "That's why I call it the Oddly Wrapped Gift. I choose to live with it not just sit back and die from it."
Stumpf isn't minimizing the desolation of being on borrowed time at age 56 with two kids in college. He should be looking forward to retirement.
"It is devastating, but I can't change it," he said. "I would rather continue to be myself and do what I can do."
Kapsner said the newfound friendship, along with the research, the places and people he's come to know were never in his wildest dreams when he began the art project. More than any of his other work, Kapsner said these paintings have the ability to touch everyone.
"It's been without a doubt an incredibly enriching experience," Kapsner said. "All of us have a vested interest in what this project is all about so that's what makes it clearly the most important thing I've ever come up against in my entire life."
Stumpf appreciates the time Kapsner puts into the painting, often driving by and seeing the studio light aglow. He liked the dedication for accuracy, down to the smallest detail. He was amazed at how life-like the images appeared, including his own.
In the painting, Stumpf is depicted in the foreground as though he is sitting outside the composition, looking in. Mueller said he likes the way it reflects Stumpf's own forward-looking nature.
It's an image the Navy veteran thinks will help his family when they lay a wreath at Christmas, when they visit at Memorial Day, when he's laid to rest at Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery.
"When they see the Navy panel, they'll know their brother, their father, their husband, their cousin was a part of it," he said.
When it's finished, the painting should last for generations.
"It's really a lot of fun to help Charles with the research," Stumpf said. "And what I've totally come to really appreciate is how we have two totally different paths in our lives in what we've chosen to do, but how important both of those paths are. ... We've gained so much respect for each other's life pursuits. And it's really neat because we come from two different worlds and have so much appreciation for each other. It's just been an amazing process."