A couple of months ago, Mr. Cheese and I happened upon one of those uber-rare and slightly odd pieces at a privately hosted estate sale. The item in question was an artist-signed print of a smiling Jesus, dated 1955. Mr. Cheese and I became obsessed with the story behind this piece, and spent hours researching it.
Google search results presented links to a few archived newspaper articles about the artist when he was using the moniker "Old Timer" and press photos of the artist just before his death, at which point he revealed his true identity to be Ralph D. Pekor. Research points out that the first known smiling Christ artwork was done by Pekor.
Pekor was an accomplished commercial/cartoon artist, but spent the majority of his life in prison for crimes that ranged from bad check writing (apparently only while intoxicated) to manslaughter.
According to the artist, it was in a dream that he first saw the image of a smiling Christ. While creating his Christ paintings in prison, Pekor desired to remain anonymous and would not accept money for his religious paintings. His smiling Christ paintings were highly sought after by churches across the United States. The artist knew actress Lilian Roth in the 1930's. Roth came to visit Pekor in prison when he had only completed eight smiling Christ paintings, and she chose to take painting #3 home with her. Roth later wrote the old timer "I keep the painting near me always. If I become weary and a bit cross I have only to look at His Smile to get the spiritual lift I need."
Even while imprisoned during WWII, Pekor was churning out propaganda illustrations for the U.S. government, as shown in this press photo for Folsom Prison.
Pekor's mark was left on Folson prison in the form of 12 murals that he painted in the former Officer's dining room. The images below of "The Last Supper" are from the Folsom County Prison Museum.
In his mural "The Last Supper", it is rumored that Pekor painted the warden as Jesus, the inmates on condemned row as the disciples, and included himself (tucked away under the table). Other accounts say that Pekor painted himself as Jesus, and it was an image of the Devil under the table.
Pekor was released from Folsom County Prison around 1941, but was soon arrested for another crime...
During his imprisonment in Florida in the mid-1950's, the prison's warden sympathized with Pekor, knowing that the outstanding warrant for his 4th offense in New Mexico would mean that he would spend the rest of his life in prison. When he was released from the Florida prison, Pekor did indeed have to return to New Mexico for imprisonment. Shortly after, upon his cancer diagnosis, the New Mexico governor granted his release from prison. Pekor died 18 days later, in 1956.
Sources: folsom prison museum, miami daily news archives, lewis wayne gallery, seattle_washington_archive