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Clinton’s portraitist passionate about work

Outside Simmie Knox’s studio, the spring day is warm and inviting, a perfect vision of suburban bliss: children sell lemonade at a curbside stand; dying cicadas sing their love songs; butterflies flutter over lush green lawns as a breeze shimmies through the trees.

Inside the converted one-car garage that he’s outfitted with large windows, sliding glass doors and a ventilation system to filter out the oil additives he uses to mix his paint, Knox jiggles his leather sandals in time to Cyrus Chestnut’s piano, one of hundreds of jazz CDs and records precariously stacked on shelves behind him.

An oscillating fan stirs the humid air as the 68-year-old artist ticks off a list of the other places he’s used as studios over a 50-year career that’s taken him from a childhood spent working the fields in Alabama to one of America’s best portrait painters: his bedroom, a small room above an auto-body shop with pigeons roosting in the rafters, his bathroom.

“If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way to do it,” Knox says, dressed in a blue smock, khakis and a blue, flowered Hawaiian shirt with a white polo beneath, the collar turned up. “Mine is a story of patience and perseverance.”

When Knox’s portrait of President Clinton was unveiled last Monday at the White House, it was the culmination of a lifetime of hard work. He’s the first black artist to paint an official presidential portrait — the “Pulitzer Prize of portrait painting,” he says.

“It’s very special when you’re asked to do a White House painting. What you’re doing is painting your place in history — you’re documenting American history,” said Robert Hall, the associate director for education and an art specialist at the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Loves his workThe Clinton portrait, and the surrounding media crush, has changed Knox’s life. But mention any aspect of his work and his eyes begin to shine, the words spilling out as he marvels that, in a stroke of luck he still can’t seem to believe, he’s able to combine his passion for art with his work.

“My craft keeps me alive. I get up at 2 a.m. sometimes just so I can get in here and make my paintings,” he says. “I’m doing exactly what I would do if I retired, or if this (Clinton painting) never happened. This is what I do when I relax. I don’t drink; I don’t smoke; I listen to jazz and I paint.”

Knox’s studio, which is attached to his two-story home in this upscale Washington suburb, is crammed with tools of the trade: dollops of paint squeezed like raw cookie dough on flat panes of glass; dozens of fresh paint brushes and paint cans. On the walls, next to rows of wooden African masks, some of his startlingly lifelike portraits stare down at him.

Knox, while humble and self-deprecating in conversation, knows he’s good at what he does. He points to portraits of former New York Mayor David Dinkins and Camille Cosby, the wife of comedian Bill Cosby, that hang in the garage.

“You can see skill, control, an ability to create this illusion on a flat, white canvas. I can look at something and render it just the way I see it,” he says. “That’s a rush you never get tired of.”

Throughout his childhood, Knox used his talents to make his friends and family laugh, drawing funny renditions of Batman and Superman. But it took a baseball to the head before he began to take his art seriously.

When he was 13, playing sandlot baseball in Mobile, Ala., he got knocked in the right eye with a ball. Teachers encouraged his drawing to help him focus and heal the muscle control in the eye.

Knox grew up poor, the son of sharecroppers in the segregated South, but he bristles at some media descriptions of his childhood and artistic development, which he calls too pat: “The way that it’s shaped — Simmie Knox, African American, self-taught artist — people think, they got him because he’s black. When you think of self-taught, you think crude, unlearned. But tell the whole story: He taught himself how to paint, but he has formal training.”

In 1961, he drew a self-portrait in pastels good enough to eventually get him into Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. He wanted to be a portrait artist, but his instructors turned him into an abstract painter, he says. “You’d bring a figure painting into class, they’d laugh at you: ’What are you bringing that junk in here for?’ So I said, ’I got to get with the program.”’

In keeping with the spirit of the times, he worked for years painting large-scale abstracts, showing his work at The Corcoran Gallery of Art and The Kreeger Museum, both in Washington.

He drifted back to portraits partly because he couldn’t support his family as an abstract painter and partly because “I didn’t have the heart for abstracts. What you toss (at the canvas) is what you get. You could call yourself an artist and not be able to draw a straight line.”

After years of struggling to find an audience and working a string of jobs teaching art to pay the bills, Knox is suddenly a bit of a celebrity, fielding congratulatory calls from Bill Cosby and interview requests from reporters around the world. He has a six-month waiting list for portraits, and his paintings fetch between $9,500 and $60,000, depending on the details and the number of people included.

“Painting portraits is a very special intellectual endeavor, and there are very few people who can do it as well as Simmie Knox,” said Hall, who first became aware of Knox’s work in the late 1970s, after Knox did a painting of author Alex Haley for the Tennessee state house.

‘Open up that door’Knox has worked for some of the most powerful and influential people in the country. But he’s best known for his portraits of celebrities and famous officials. Besides Haley and Cosby: defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran (with the scales of justice at his side); late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; boxer Muhammad Ali; baseball great Hank Aaron.

H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University, sat for a Knox portrait commissioned by the State University of New York in Albany, where Swygert was once president. He had three sessions with Knox, about two hours each time.

“Sitting for him was really a lot of fun, because with Simmie you don’t just sit, you sit and talk,” Swygert said. “He’s able to make the subject feel that you’re having a conversation with an old friend who just happens to be painting your portrait.”

Swygert said Knox asked him all sorts of questions about himself and what was important to him. The finished portrait included little clues to Swygert’s personality throughout, including a pair of cufflinks with the scales of justice on them, reflecting that Swygert was a lawyer.

Clinton chose Knox to paint his portrait after seeing his painting of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Knox met with Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, then painted their portraits using photographs he took of the couple.

Knox hopes the Clinton portrait will “force people to see me in a different light. Eighty percent of my clients have been black, and I don’t think it has anything to do with my ability. I think it has to do with this culture and how people see people of color.”

He plans to begin painting historical themes, including the civil rights movement. And he dreams of one day painting Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela. But most of all he wants to keep working, continuing to combine his passion and his profession.

“When I left the White House, I told President Bush, ‘Give me a shot; I’m available,”’ he says. “People laughed, but when you’re in business, you’re in business. Politics can’t ever get in the way.”

He smiles and quotes a lyric from one of his heroes: “There’s a James Brown song that says, ’I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door and I’ll get it myself.’

“That’s how I feel. Open up that door.”