AS INTUITIVE HISTORY
In late 1992 and early 1993 I painted
tennis great Arthur Ashe, shortly before his death from AIDS. I had
known Arthur casually for several years through Virginia Heroes, a mentorship
program he had begun in Richmond. The painting, which was acquired for
the National Portrait Gallery by the Smithsonian, was, I believe, the
result of many intuitively correct choices I made.
First, I let the subject choose the pose.
It happened by accident - though I know better than that - midway through
our October 22, 1992 session at my studio in Richmond. Arthur had told
me in a phone call earlier that day from New York that he was not feeling
very well, and we had scheduled a simple photo shoot to give me some readily
available source material for the portrait. After a while taking photographs,
I suggested that we break for a few minutes rest. Arthur's tennis racquet
became a support, as he gracefully turned it downward and leaned on it.
" I hate to impose on your rest period, " I said, "but don't move." He
looked directly at me, with a hint of a smile, and said, "Okay." The portrait's
essential look was set. I knew the pose was important because it had happened
I had suggested casual dress, but again
I let Arthur make the choice, because portraits best reflect the truth
when they're not over-planned. He appeared at my studio wearing a sport
jacket and tie for his evening appearance to receive a humanitarian
award. I suggested he remove his jacket. "Shall I take off the tie?"
he asked. " No, let's leave it on," I replied. When I saw the unexpected
combination of white shirt, tie and racquet, I knew it was symbolically
correct to describe the last chapter of Arthur Ashe's life - on the
lecture circuit to promote the causes in which he believed, in a hurry,
yet serene, always supported by the acclaim from his tennis days. Further,
the design I chose for the painting is squared up - straight on - direct
- like Arthur Ashe. It is the portrait of a gentleman.
Arthur Ashe was not able to return for
another sitting , and I had to complete the portrait after his death from
the photographs. The slight sadness, which some seem to see in the eyes
of the painting, while not inappropriate to Arthur Ashe, may be the sadness
I felt during the months following his death. I really couldn't shake
off my feelings of grief. In an attempt to soothe myself, the brilliant
background color I had chosen was repainted a soft, almost ethereal blue-violet.
Someone called the painting "Arthur's bench in heaven." Maybe so.
Finally, I had planned to paint a life-size
portrait of Arthur Ashe, yet the completed painting is closer to three-quarters
life-size. I now understand the choice I made, while at the time it
was an intuitive decision. John Berger helps with the answer. He observes
that historically " the painted public portrait must insist upon a formal
distance." Berger notes the conflict this poses for the viewer, who
because of the accurate portrayal of three-dimensional reality, assumes
"that he is close to - within touching distance of - any object in the
foreground of the picture. If the object is a person, such proximity
implies a certain intimacy." For this reason, I chose to paint Ashe
slightly under life-size to assure a formal and psychological distance,
which I felt was an integral part of Arthur Ashe's personality. A life-sized
portrait would have felt too intimate to replicate my relationship with
Arthur Ashe, and I suspect it would have struck many others in a similar
way. Being close-up to a life-sized painting of Arthur Ashe would have
seemed a little uncomfortable - somehow wrong, too touchable. The painting
I did feels intuitively right, in that it mandates we keep a certain
respectful distance. The perspective inherent in the scale is essential
to the feel of the portrait. Yes, the curtain of the heart has been
pulled back, but in a gentle and appropriate way.
Picasso, on being asked to name his favorite
painting, replied, "The next one." My favorite portrait is always the
next one, because it promises to bring with it a wealth of new information
about my subject and me. I will have the opportunity once again to pull
back the curtain of my heart and the privilege of gaining access to someone
else's spirit. The more I do this, the more welcome it becomes, the more
I trust the process, and the more I believe that every painted portrait
becomes the historical document it is intended to be. My approach to painting
portraits is, I suppose, a spiritual one. I believe I will make the choices
necessary to reflect my experience of the relationship I'm setting to
paint. I try to stay out of my own way and leave room for my subject,
and for the presence of spirit.
My next door neighbor years ago used
to say, "Most people end up being about as close as they're supposed
to be." Portraits are like that, too.