$2 million surprise honors professor

An anonymous donor has given $2 million to John Brown University in order to institute the Charles Peer Endowed Chair in Visual Arts, the University announced last week. This gift includes a $1 million matching challenge for new endowed scholarships for art students. Charles Peer will be the first holder of the endowed chair.

Peer has been an active participant in the art world. He is a practicing pastel landscape painter, has owned his own art gallery and studio, is a professor of visual arts at the University and is partly responsible for the creation of its visual arts department. But ask him about the course his life has taken, and he will say: “Never in my wildest imagination would I have dreamed up this plan that the Lord has developed and carried out.”

“When I went to college I wasn’t really expecting to go into a field that was art-related,” Peer said. “Somewhere along that process I just discovered that that was where my passion was…It was not a straight path – a little bit of a wandering path there.”

Peer dabbled in other majors during college. Eventually, he found his way into the visual arts department of Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.

After completing his undergraduate degree, he began work as an illustrator with an advertising department. On what he describes as a “whim.” Peer decided to begin graduate school.

“It felt impulsive at the time, but it also felt like the absolute right thing to do.”

He attended graduate school for three years, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Arkansas in 1979.

After graduating, Peer moved back to his hometown of Van Buren, Ark. and purchased a building on its historic Main Street. This became his private art studio and gallery.

Peer was living many artists’ dream, but his professional life was not yet permanent. During his time with his gallery, former John Brown University art professor Dodie

Brookhart asked him to showcase an exhibit of his work at the university. While Peer was visiting the campus with his exhibit, Brookhart mentioned that she was retiring. She told him she thought he would be an excellent replacement for her.

As the conversation with Brookhart went on, Peer’s excitement about the job prospect began to grow. He realized it would only be a part-time job. The only art degree offered at the University then was an associate’s degree in general art.

Peer soon followed his excitement and, in 1987, began his journey at the University. He thought the position would be for one semester, but it soon turned into three years.

Peer and his family were still living in Van Buren, which meant he travelled 65 miles one way multiple times a week.

“At that point, I had decided that enough was enough,” Peer said.

“When I went in to see the academic dean [to resign] he presented me with the idea that he wanted [another adjunct professor] Dave Andrus and I to come on full-time and develop what became our new program. So going in expecting to quit, I came out with a full-time job offer, which was something I think the Lord must have thought was really hilarious,” Peer said.

After many family discussions and much prayer, Peer ended his 10-year career at his gallery and studio. He uprooted his family, and they made the move to Siloam Springs, Ark. in 1990.

Before the founding of John Brown’s visual arts department, only one other university in the U.S. was a part of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities.

“That was a niche that we could help fill,” Peer said.

With Andrus and Peer working together, the visual arts department began to take shape. The establishment of the department gained invaluable support from the university’s board members and administration.

“It was, again, something that took a lot of thought and trust and prayer that the plans we were developing were really kind of unique,” Peer said.

In the department’s first year of operation, six students enrolled as art majors. Today, the visual arts department is the largest department on the University’s campus, with over 250 students enrolled as art majors. Hundreds of people have graduated from the art program.

“That wasn’t my plan. That really was the Lord’s work, and I just got to be a little small part in that blossoming,” Peer says. “It really was the best thing. The Lord has really blessed us. It was certainly not a path that I expected to go down…It kind of shows how amazing and creative [the Lord is], and He’s got a sense of humor, too.”