Portrait of an Artist

Simmie Knox was a little-known African-American artist, until President Clinton asked him to paint his official White House portrait

"You can't live in Washington, D.C., and not know Simmie Knox," says Hazel O'Leary, chief operating officer of the investment banking firm Blairlock & Partners and the former secretary of Energy in the first Clinton administration. "I mean, everybody knows Simmie."

Well, maybe, although it seems that a large number of people have managed the trick of never hearing the name or seeing the portrait art of Mr. Knox, who has successfully operated under the art world's radar for many years.

That may be changing, however, since the Silver Springs, Md., artist was selected to paint President Clinton's official White House portrait, perhaps the apex of any portrait artist's career.

And with that, Knox, whose clients principally have been judges and a variety of African-American political and cultural leaders, became the first African-American to win this reputation-making commission.

Knox's selection was no fluke.

"Our goal was to give someone new the opportunity," says Eugenie Bisulco, a Clinton administration staffer who headed the search team for a White House portrait artist. Last December, Knox showed Clinton his portfolio and soon after was given the go-ahead.

Reputation and income grows

In Knox's portrait, President Clinton is flanked by a number of props that have meaning to him, including a bust of Abraham Lincoln, an American flag, and some military medallions. Earlier this week, Knox told the Monitor that he is in the process of finishing the portrait. But no date has yet been set for the painting to be unveiled at the White House.

Knox has been the beneficiary of a word-of-mouth campaign for almost two decades, as one person passed his name on to the next within a network of the African-American community. With every referral came a portrait commission - sometimes more than one - and Knox's reputation and income grew. More recently, and with the White House portrait, the artist has crossed over into a wider circle that includes both white and black patrons.

Knox, like most portrait artists, works from photographs and quick sketches rather than laboriously painting his subjects on location.

The money to pay for White House portraits - usually $25,000 apiece, not including costs of framing, travel, food, and other related expenses - comes from the White House Historical Association, which was founded by Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 when she was first lady. It is a privately chartered organization that quietly solicits money for fine and decorative art acquisitions for the White House, as well as any refurnishing.

Knox has received commissions for portraits of a dozen or more African-American judges, including former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

His most notable supporters have been Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille. Over a period of eight years, the Cosbys commissioned Knox to paint 12 different versions of portraits of themselves and of their friends. "Every artist needs a time to work and not worry about the bills," Knox says. "The Cosbys helped me get that."

Less directly, the Cosbys were responsible for Knox's selection to do the official portraits of Hazel O'Leary for the Energy secretary's office, of New York City Mayor David Dinkins, and of Alexis Herman for the Labor secretary's office.

'Never took an art class'

Knox's road to an art career was anything but straightforward. He was born in Aliceville, Ala. His father, after whom he was named ("my nickname was Junior"), was a carpenter and mechanic. Knox's parents divorced when he was 3, and for almost six years, he lived with an aunt on his father's side on a farm in Leroy, Ala., while his father lived and worked in another city.

While growing up, he "never took an art class. There was no place to go take an art class in the 1940s, '50s, and even the '60s." Not that he cared particularly, because his first love was baseball, which he played with friends as often as he could.

One of those friends was Hank Aaron, a year older than Knox and destined to be the major leagues' all-time home-run leader. It was during a game, however, that a ball hit Knox in the eye, an injury that forced his inactivity for more than a year. A doctor recommended that Knox find something to do that would retrain his eyes to focus, and the nuns at Heart of Mary school started him drawing.

Knox was a biology major at the University of Delaware, but his illustrations were so adept that "a teacher suggested I take some art courses." He switched to an art education major so he could teach art in public schools, which he did for 18 years. Knox also earned a Masters of Fine Arts from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia.

What is called an "artistic temperament" is out of place in a realm in which subjects are invariably sensitive about the size of their noses and ears, Knox says. "I'm in a service profession," he says, acknowledging the need to please.

"As a line of work, portrait painting is all word of mouth. I try to make sure each client is pleased, because one painting can haunt you forever. I may have to make changes and additions when I'm doing a portrait.... You compliment and flatter to a point that's not ridiculous."

Subjects may experience nervousness, but so did Knox when he first met Chief Justice Marshall, a towering figure in 20th-century American history.

"Thurgood Marshall calmed me down," Knox says. "He could tell I was nervous. He told jokes, he told stories about his life. I came away feeling so good about the man."

Mr. Marshall was known in the African-American community as a man who tried to help young people get ahead. It was that Marshall whom Knox wanted to portray, rather than the dour, iron-willed symbol of the civil-rights movement. In Knox's portrait, there is a hint of a smile, a pleasant expression on his face, which pleased and surprised Marshall and his family.

Only handful of white subjects

Rarely taking a day off, Knox remains busy with commissions for which he sometimes charges as much as $60,000.

The word-of-mouth referrals also have been a drawback. His name has gone to the top of the list of many African-American clients, but building a white clientele has been slow. There have been some white subjects, but only a handful.

"Race has played quite a role in this country," Knox says. "There are those who, no matter how good I am, will never let me paint their portrait."

His selection by President Clinton may become a turning point for Knox, as well as for other portrait artists of color, or it may be an anomaly.

"His is primarily a black audience, which is a limited audience," says David Driskell, an artist, art historian, and long-time art adviser to the Cosbys. It was through him that the Cosbys learned of Knox when they were looking for a portrait artist in the early 1980s.

"There has been no means of letting the larger, general public know about Simmie."

Until now.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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