As a defensive back for Georgia Tech, Michael Peterson makes himself mirror the opposing receiver. He sees the play unfold while running backward and sideways, and tries to leave his mark.

Off the field, his eye is on a target just as intimidating: a stretched, empty canvas. As a painter, Peterson takes on doubt and fear with every stroke of brush and oil. His surprising avocation unfolds in an unusual location: a multi-story homeless shelter near his Atlanta campus.

Between his final undergraduate courses and spring football, Peterson squeezed in all the studio time possible.

“The day I met Michael was right before one of the nights calling for snow, and there were hundreds and hundreds of men in there,” said Todd Murphy, an Atlanta painter and sculptor who has shown at the city’s most prominent art space, the High Museum of Art.

Courtesy
Artist and football player Michael Peterson

“It was pretty overwhelming, but there was still space to paint…. He is wide open, which is the hardest thing for people to be. He’s so unbelievably enthusiastic and just utterly creative. When I went and saw where he was working, it blew my mind. These guys were helping him work out the lighting on a cheekbone or the formal issues of structure of a face. He doesn’t look at whether they are homeless.”

As Peterson put the finishing touches on a portrait of teammate Derrick Morgan recently, he offered his perspective – in art and life.

“Artists take so much risk, and that’s what I’m learning to do,” Peterson said. “This studio is a different world, a different culture, and it helps me balance.

“In football, I love that I’ve discovered an art there. Different techniques can excel there too.”

The Peterson’s diverse college experience revolves around one word: depth.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Tampa native not only plays deep on the field, but he’s mining academic and artistic offerings beyond his campus. He’s also honing his hand-eye skills to bring greater dimension to his paintings.

Peterson will graduate Sunday with a business degree. With a year of football eligibility remaining, he's striving for new levels athletically and artistically. He wants to make the Yellow Jackets’ starting lineup. Through cross-enrollment, he hopes to take art courses at other Atlanta colleges.

Famous painters drove themselves to greatness despite poverty; Peterson is finding his style peering into the kaleidoscope of people and stories at the shelter.

James Brooks, 61, moved in after a string of misfortunes including a car wreck, stroke and burglary left him destitute. A muralist, set designer and portrait painter, Brooks offered tips on visualizing and perspective.

“There is a competition that exists between the artist and canvas and tools, and that competition is something you strive to overcome,” Brooks said. “At first, there is fear because you are unfamiliar with the tools and fear of drawing the wrong line and applying the wrong color. (Peterson) is overcoming that fear.”

As a teenager, Peterson wove his love of sports into his art by making and selling throwback basketball jerseys – from fabric off the bolt. He honed his eye by tracing logos backward, and his mom helped sew them on. An early customer was Anthony Allen, who became his teammate at Tech and a 2011 draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens.

Peterson now works in oils. These dry as slow as football is fast.

Another contrast is confidence. Peterson said he had to learn “to not be scared of the paint. It’s not going to beat you up or throw you on the ground.”

Compare that with his outlook as a cornerback: “You can shut someone up real fast if you hit him hard enough.”

A year ago, a sign offering free studio space on Peachtree Street – Atlanta’s main thoroughfare -- drew Peterson into the shelter. A Tech friend hooked him up with Murphy, who graduated from archrival Georgia. Art is their common ground, transcending the “good old-fashioned hate” between their schools.

“On the field, Michael and his teammates are big, iconic superhuman people, but all of a sudden with him being an artist, he’s got this whole other side to him that’s really interesting,” said Murphy, whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including at Virginia, Connecticut, Kennesaw State and LSU.

“This season will determine whether he goes pro or not, and I told him that art is another tool to use to pursue life creatively and stay open-minded.”

For Peterson, art fuels a fearlessness that carries over to football.

“You’ve got to take chances,” he said. “Obviously, you don’t want to take a dumb chance that will put you in a bad predicament. You wouldn’t put down undercoats of black paint because those would show through your whole painting. You take the risks that will help you excel.”