In the 2000s, gallery owner and painter Perry Milou was a regular on the Rittenhouse Square scene and in Philadelphia gossip columns. If a sports team was whipping the city into a frenzy with a championship run, Milou was on the case, painting populist portraits, variously, of the 2001 76ers, the 2005 Eagles, the 2008 Phillies, and even Triple Crown contender Smarty Jones.
Now, the self-described "fine pop" artist (and 2003 Daily News "Sexy Single") has tapped into the city's latest obsession: the impending visit of Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families on Sept. 26 and 27.
With a series titled "The Faces of Francis," he said, "I captured lightning in a bottle."
Milou, 47, has turned his six paintings into thousands of prints, calendars, mugs, plates, note cards, prayer cards, magnets, Christmas ornaments, and T-shirts to be sold online and through local retailers (though a hoped-for deal with the QVC shopping channel fell through). And he's licensed the image to the World Meeting of Families as the official portrait to be used on the organization's own merchandise, by way of retail vendor Aramark.
As for the originals, he's hoping they'll generate millions. He's listed one painting for $1 million - he said most of that will go to charity - and expects the others will sell during the World Meeting of Families, when he'll have a booth at the Convention Center in the run-up to the pope's visit.
"It's not that easy to figure out how to market paintings you think you could sell for $21/2 million or $3 million," he said. "I've been praying to Jesus and to Adonai, the Jewish god, and to a higher power. I've been asking for this guidance, and it's been coming every day."
Milou, whose father is Neil Stein - former restaurant impresario (Striped Bass, Avenue B) and federal prison inmate - was raised Jewish on the Main Line. ("I consider myself now not Catholic or Jewish," he said. "I consider myself highly spiritually evolved.")
He studied graphic design and illustration at the University of Arizona before settling in Philadelphia, where he ran galleries around Rittenhouse Square. In 2007, his Galleria 1903 made headlines when the building's co-op board terminated his lease because the gallery was hosting seminars on subjects such as bondage and "Spanking 101" alongside an exhibition of erotic art.
Later, he moved to Miami to capitalize on the art market powered by the annual Art Basel show. "I opened the gallery there in 2008, and then the market collapsed and I lost a lot of money."
So he traded in his "Sexy Single" status for marriage, and moved with his wife, Angela, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, to Washington Crossing. They have a daughter, Francesca, 5. Their second child, a boy, is due to be born during the papal visit; Milou thinks Francesco would be a fitting name.
In February, when Angela first heard the pope was coming, she urged him to start painting, Milou said.
"I started the piece the next day," he said of A Prayer for Peace, which depicts the pope blowing a kiss. "The piece was done in eight hours flat."
Milou has long painted from photographs. He searched online for the pontiff, "probably printed out 200 photos, and pinned them up."
"I could not get Pope Francis to visit my studio," he said.
He said each painting is based on multiple photos - though each of three of them appears closely based on a single photo of the pope distributed by Getty Images or Reuters. Milou said he did not have a license to use the source photos but didn't require one. A spokesperson for Getty said the matter was being investigated; Reuters and the Italian photographers who took the images did not respond to requests for comment.
In any case, once Milou had produced four paintings, he showed the works to a friend, who referred him to Lucille Francesco, a member of the development committee of the World Meeting of Families. That opened doors.
"He was brought to our attention by two board members who saw his art, and it really resonated with them," said Joan Doyle, a retail consultant with the World Meeting of Families. "It really resonated with everyone here."
They negotiated a percentage-based licensing deal, which led to a line of official posters, mugs, paperweights, and tote bags.
It was Milou's biggest contract since the Philadelphia Museum of Art licensed paintings he made in the style of Vincent van Gogh for an exhibition of the master's works.
In the last few weeks, Milou has inked still more partnerships. That includes one with Life Celebration, a North Wales company producing 15 pope-related items with Milou, and another with Nic Ink, a graphic design firm that has adapted his paintings into an array of prints proclaiming "Irish Blessings," "Amore," and "Feliz Natal." A pulmonologist in Lititz, Pa., approached Milou about creating an augmented-reality app that would call up readings, videos, and an online store with Milou's images.
Shannon Plotkin, director of marketing for Life Celebration, said she expected to sell thousands of calendars, in particular. "We are building a large inventory as we speak," she said.
Milou said he sold 500 mugs and 500 ornaments in a week, and expects sales to spike as he launches his Web store, shoppopefrancis.com, on Thursday.
"People are coming out of the woodwork, so I have to be very careful who I partner with," he said. "The art is very pure."
He's enlisted a public-relations firm to contact media, and has heard from the Associated Press and the New York Times, he said. A Prayer for Peace is protected by an antique, 50-pound frame and a cover with an ornate cross embellishment, hand-sewn by a friend's mother. That was helpful when Milou had to haul the work to Rockefeller Center for an interview on NBC.
He's been calling the image of a papal air-kiss his "million-dollar painting."
"I'm a pretty savvy guy and I know that's a sexy number," he said. "To me what I'm creating here now is a very powerful message that's right in tune with [the pope's] delivery. And that's why I can justify asking that much money for the works. To give back. To, 100 percent, give back."
In his initial call for purchasers, he promised to 75 percent give back: $250,000 to the Mural Arts Program and $500,000 to the charity of the buyer's choice. Now, he said, he's stepping back from that and leaving the terms of a sale open ended. He thinks a corporate foundation would be the most likely buyer.
So, is he an artist or a businessman?
"That's a good question," he said. "I'm an artist first, but I'm an excellent businessman."
Indeed, his studio, in Angela's grandmother's house in Ewing, N.J., is overflowing with merchandise samples, from $25 T-shirts up to $795 prints, plus that $1 million painting. But he doesn't plan to make any more pope paintings.
"You don't want to overdo it," he said. "I don't know if you think I've overdone it."