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Portrait of a Painter

Here in the United States, one of the greatest honors an artist can have is the White House commission to paint the portrait of an outgoing president. That honor was given last year for the first time to an African American artist. His name is Simmie Knox, and he was chosen to paint the portrait of former president Bill Clinton.

Simmie Knox says of his paintings, "I thoroughly understand the craft. I thoroughly understand how to use color. It's just a matter of me to move from one end of my color palette to another, when I'm painting white people, people of color."

A visit to Simmie Knox's studio is like a walk through African American history. In 1976, as a young art teacher, Simmie Knox painted a portrait of Frederick Douglass, one of the great leaders of the 19th century abolitionist movement. He also painted this portrait of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Hope Franklin, a famous historian, posed for him.

As did David Dinkins, the first black man to be elected mayor of New York City.

A dual portrait of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, two women active in the struggle to obtain voting rights for blacks in the American south during the 1950s and 1960s. Childhood friend and baseball great, Hank Aaron.

Comedian Bill Cosby, and boxing champion, Muhammad Ali. Simmie Knox will be the first to tell you the commission to paint the White House portrait of Bill Clinton did not come easily. There was competition, a preliminary study of the president, a personal interview. In the end, it was Mr. Clinton's choice, an artist with whom he felt comfortable.

As it happened, friends of Mr. Clinton's were friends of Simmie Knox, and that, Simmie Knox believes, is what swayed the president to choose him.

"Portraits of a lot of prominent African Americans have been painted by white Americans. But there are few prominent white Americans that have been painted by black Americans," he said. "Now this case, with the president, I think he made an exception. I was trying to capture the strength of the man... I think in light of all of the things that have gone on around him... that they're going to realize that this is a great American president and that's what I was trying to capture."

Regardless of the subject matter, Simmie Knox listens to jazz as he paints. The day we met him, he was finishing a portrait of George and Jane Russell of Tacoma, Washington. The company they founded had commissioned him to do the painting.

As a young boy in the 1930s and 1940s, Simmie Knox grew up in rural Alabama. Decades later he is still grateful to his father for having sent him away to a parochial school in the city of Mobile, Alabama. There he developed an interest in drawing.

"I thank him for his insight and for his vision, to be down there in the deep south at that time," he said.

Later, as an art student in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he developed an interest in abstract painting. The techniques he developed then, he says, are still with him today.

“It forced me to really take a thorough look at the elements of design, which is very fundamental to making anything visual," he said.

Still, he admits there is a very real difference between an abstract artist and a portrait painter.

"If you don't get the likeness, you don't have a portrait," he said. "You just have a painting."

As a portrait painter, Simmie Knox says he doesn't take artistic liberties, and makes sure the client understands what he has in mind before he begins to work. That way, he says, there are no surprises, and the painter and his subject are both pleased with the outcome.