Welcome to my blog! I hope you enjoy visiting from time to time. I will have fun posting information related to current projects, my travels, or just random thoughts! Feel free to post your comments anytime.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Remembering Senator Arlen Specter

           When I first got the call to paint Senator Specter for Yale Law School, I was instantly thrilled.  Like many Americans who enjoy politics and C-Span TV, I had long known of the famous Senator from Pennsylvania from his numerous interviews, Senate floor speeches, debates, and magazine and newspaper articles. The longest serving United States Senator from his the keystone state, he was a powerhouse of intellect and a person of unwavering determination.  “Snarlin Arlen” as he was known by reputation caused more than a touch of reservation in me. I hoped I could connect with this formidable senator in a way that would help me create a lasting portrait of the man.  Happily, throughout the commission, I was surprised again and again by Senator Specter’s interest in the portrait’s success and his personal thoughtfulness and loyalty. 

Our initial introduction was not as fruitful as I had hoped.  We met for dinner with his wife in a particularly loud restaurant.  Throughout dinner we all struggled to hear each other’s conversations and were interrupted again and again by passers by who wanted to speak to the Senator.  Meaningful conversation proved impossible.  We then walked to a local theater where, finally… we engaged in a bit of small talk.  I enjoyed the play, but at the intermission the Senator said he would need to leave early.  He had a busy Sunday morning with an interview on a nationally syndicated television news show, a brunch at his home with a few supporters and then posing for me the rest of the afternoon.  Had you asked me how the evening had gone I would have confessed I was not sure I had gained much for my portrait.  Every moment with my sitter is research and this night, although a privilege--- had not produced for me an accurate impression of the man. The next day would prove to be totally the opposite.

I caught the interview on television the following morning, and then headed to the Specter’s attractive home just outside Philadelphia. There I found Senator Specter had arrived before me and had already begun speaking with several couples who had come for a Q&A brunch event.  He was beginning a campaign that would last more than two years ending in his switching parties and ultimately his first defeat in 30 years of service to the people of Pennsylvania.

After the last guest left, Senator Specter asked me out to his patio sun porch and inquired as to just what I needed for our time together.  He was a bit short in conversation and said “Ok, ok—let’s get on with it.  I don’t have a lot of time.”  So, I got to it--- beginning my photo shoot and discussing the portrait. The painting was for Yale Law School and had been commissioned by some friends to celebrate his 50th anniversary since graduating from Yale Law.  As we worked, he had an intensity and focus that seemed perfectly right for his reputation.

During the process, Senator Specter said “I saw a portrait of the mayor of Philadelphia in the late 1950’s and always liked the pose.  He was looking down, arms crossed.  What do you think about that kind of pose for me?”  I wanted to seize the moment because I was in perfect agreement with him.  I had been studying the Senator on television while the floor of the Senate and had seen him in this pose before. “The pose is PERFECT for you, Senator!”  I said--- and reinforced, “I have been watching you give floor speeches at the Senate.  You strike that pose many times in a thoughtful, meaningful stance---glasses in hand and glancing down just before you make a point.  It will show you as poised, reflective,  a man of exceptional, discerning intelligence----one of the greatest minds in the Senate in the last 100 years!”.  With that, he looked at me intently with the slightest hint of a grin and said, “What’s this business about the last 100 years?”  “You’re right Senator!”  I replied as quickly as I could form the words. “What was I thinking? I should have said in the last 220 years!”  Putting his hand firmly on my shoulder and looking me square in the eye he smiled and said, “We’re going to get along just fine.”  And so we did.  From that time on, the moments and the memories stack up a mile high.  

The rest of the afternoon included a long and relaxed lunch prepared by Mrs. Specter. While sitting at their dinning room table, we swapped fun stories about people I had painted that he knew, his love of old slap stick comedy movies with the Marx Brothers,  their travels around the world.  Late in the day he shared with me his scrap albums covering years of his career from a prosecutor in Philadelphia in the late 1950's to his run for President, to his time in the Senate.  He told me stories in great detail of his time on the Warren Commission following the assassination of President Kennedy, meetings with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  What had started off as a clipped series of events eventually slid into a relaxing Sunday afternoon revealing a true picture of the man I was to paint.  

In the months to follow, the Senator and Mrs. Specter visited my Nashville studio.  We completed his portrait and enjoyed an amazing unveiling in the Constitution Center in Philadelphia for hundreds of his supporters, family and friends. Since that time I have seen the Senator on many occasions. Most recently this spring at a portrait unveiling.  He always took time to chat.  Even commenting on my hair style change and comparing to his own “loss of curls” in recent years.  He and Mrs. Specter looked great and he was headed out to do an all out blitz on his newly published book. 

I can honestly say that he has had a special and lasting impact on me.  Some of it is unexplainable and may be attributable to his own unique skill as a politician---but, some of it I know is my sheer respect and admiration of him.  Watching him fight his numerous bouts with cancer, all the while still getting up every day, shoes polished, tie perfectly knotted and pocket square neatly folded the same way for more than 30 years. With his devoted work ethic never missing a day on the floor of the Senate during his treatments.  Always intently focused on the issues of the day and how he could make a difference, he was a tenacious and impressively unique guy in every way.  I will always be grateful and  honored that I had the opportunity to paint his portrait and know this remarkable man.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Portrait of an Artist

Late one evening last week I sat in a small room I had rented for the night in the historic National Arts Club just off Gramercy Park. The venerable old club is one of my favorite stops in New York City and I treasure my membership there. It is filled with paintings, antique furniture, and a remarkable collection of artifacts both decorative and exotic---it's a magical place. No matter how often I visit, it has the effect of stepping through the wardrobe, similar to a C.S. Lewis novel, into another world removed from the modern city just outside it's interior.

This night, I had stopped for a brief stay as I traveled back home from an exciting journey to Paris.  As the clock struck 11:00 pm, I sat comfortably nestled in an old armchair near a well-worn fireplace, the room dimly lit, and the air scented with a combination of stale chimney smoke and a newly varnished wood floor. Across from me--- in a twin chair to my own--- sat my mentor, hero, and friend Everett Raymond Kinstler. America's preeminent painter of portraits had dropped by for a visit and for the last two hours we had shared stories of clients, travels, and our favorite topic of all---painting.

Nearly synonymous with the National Arts Club, Mr. Kinstler has lived and worked there for more than six decades. As usual, throughout the conversation I was hanging on his every word.  I listened intently to the stories and wisdom of a man who has made art his life, now enjoying his seventieth year as a full time artist.  Yes, 70 years!

It is never lost on me how incredibly lucky I am, "blessed" really (a word Mr. Kinstler prefers over "luck") to spend time with this amazingly talented man and to have been learning "at the feet" of a master for the past 20 years.  

As we sat and talked, I began to reflect on a recent portrait I had painted of him.  I was making one more pass, one more series of observations before I counted my picture officially finished.  As is normal for me, I began to worry if I had captured something of the man on canvas.  I had felt this way before on many portraits, but it was especially true of this one.  Not only because I was portraying a person who means so much to me both personally and professionally, but also simply because his personality is so very large, so intense, so focused that my small 24"x30" canvas simply paled in comparison even before I placed the first brush stroke on it’s surface.

Unaware that my mind had turned for a moment to despair about my picture of him, Mr. Kinstler began to reflect on his own work in the studio and the restlessness that he felt over a recent, nearly completed portrait.  He had been pushing himself, digging and digging at the painting as he attempted to wring out every ounce of his skill and powers of observation onto the canvas.  The last sitting with the client was to take place in the studio the following morning and he was re-evaluating his specific goals for the portrait and his last opportunity to review the subject from life.

It suddenly occurred to me that this was the state of most artists no matter how long they had been working!  After more than two thousand commissioned portraits and countless other pictures in his lifetime as an artist, Mr. Kinstler, like all of us, is still looking for something more.  It reminded me of a quote I had read on my trip across the Atlantic only a few days before in the wonderful Hart-Davis biography of Phillip de Laszo.  At that moment, I pulled out the book from my bag, found the passage, and read the following lines aloud to my great mentor.  As I read, he gazed at the floor and shook his head slowly in agreement. 

Writing in her diary, Mrs. de Laszlo recorded in part:

"Yesterday he {Phillip de Laszlo} finished the portrait of the Speaker. He is not quite pleased with it. His art makes him suffer so, really much more than I realise....Always this dissatisfaction.... If a picture is still in progress, one is always hopeful. How little I can do to help an artist to suffer less... he would not be so great [an artist) if he suffered less."

No matter how long I work at my portrait of Mr. Kinstler, or any of my pictures for that matter, I realize I am never going to be completely "satisfied".  In the end, it is actually quite healthy--- this state of unrest.  Only those who feel contentment with their work will cease to learn and grow.  As the great illustrator James Montgomery Flagg famously said, "Once you have arrived, you have no place else to go!".

It was getting very late and it was time for Mr. Kinstler to return to his studio apartment and get some well-deserved rest.  His packed schedule began early the following morning and would have stressed any artist half his age.  As we said goodnight we gave each other a solid hug complete with affirming pats on the back.  At that very moment I decided my picture was finished or as Robert Henri said, I had found "a good place to stop." The portrait is a memory, a record of this time and this place in my life as an artist and a protégé of Everett Raymond Kinstler.

As I watched him slowly walk down the hall, I knew that tomorrow we'd both go at it again with every picture in our studio.  We will step into the ring, put on the gloves and duke it out with each new canvas.  I smiled as one of my favorite Kinstler scenes came to mind---performed for me many times before---with a pronounced stagger in my direction, leaning onto my nearest shoulder and saying with a gasp and a grin... "What round is it champ?!!".    

Michael Shane Neal, Artist
15 May 2012

Giclee prints on canvas of Mr. Kinstler's portrait by Michael Shane Neal will be available for sale by the Portrait Society of America.  The limited edition prints will initially be offered to participants at the 2012 Art of the Portrait Conference in Philadelphia, Pa. along with a DVD video presentation of the start of the portrait recorded live on stage in 2011.  Order information coming later this week!