Artist Simmie Knox, Named to Paint Official Clinton Portrait, Now Completing UAlbany Commission of H. Patrick Swygert

Contact: Vincent Reda, 518-437-4985

ALBANY, N.Y. -Simmie Knox, a Washington, D.C., artist selected to paint the White House portrait of former President Bill Clinton, is now at work on a University at Albany commission to paint the official portrait of former UAlbany President H. Patrick Swygert. Swygert, now president of Howard University in Washington, served as the University at Albany's president from 1990 to 1995 before moving to Howard.

Knox has built his reputation on likenesses of such individuals as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, boxer Muhammad Ali and entertainer Bill Cosby and family. A graduate of Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, he has specialized in oil portraiture since 1976.

Knox said he was delighted at the opportunity to know and paint Swygert.

"I was extremely excited about it because I had been wanting to contact President Swygert on my own and see if I could do a portrait of him," said Knox, whose studio is a converted garage at his home in suburban Silver Springs, Maryland. "He is a leader in the community, and I have great admiration and respect for him."

Knox said he had already begun work on the Swygert portrait when he learned he had been selected by the White House to paint the Clinton portrait. Shortly before Christmas, Knox showed Clinton his portfolio and snapped some photos of the outgoing president. In January, he returned to the White House with a study in oil showing five different poses. "(The president) looked at my studies and kept saying, "I love it, I love it," Knox said.

Knox indicated he will finish the Swygert portrait before turning his attention to the White House commission. In January, Knox said that he had already met once with President Swygert at Swygert's home to discuss the project and take some photos. The artist said he typically has three meetings with the individuals he paints, and that the finished product can take anywhere from a week to two months.

"There is lots of prep work involved. President Swygert is like a lot of the people I have painted - he doesn't have time to sit for two hours on several occasions, so I rely on photos and sketches," said Knox.

Once completed, the Swygert portrait will be installed with those of other University at Albany presidents on the second floor of the University Library, according to Art Museum Director Marijo Dougherty, who made the arrangements with Knox. Other portraits include those of Evan R. Collins (president from 1949 to 1969) by Philip Pearlstein, Vincent O'Leary (1977-1990) by Joan Semmel, John M. Sayles (1939-1947) and William Milne (1889-1914), both by David C. Lithgow; and Abram R. Brubacher (1915-1939) by Edward P. Buyck. Oil portraits of 19th century UAlbany presidents going back to the school's founding in 1844 were lost in a fire in 1906 which destroyed the old Willett Street Building in downtown Albany.

Swygert said he considered it "a great honor" to sit for Knox, and he is grateful to the University for commissioning the portrait. "The real challenge facing Simmie Knox is my directive to him to make sure that I appear tall, handsome, suave, debonair and learned," Swygert joked.

Knox became the first African-American commissioned to paint an official portrait of a Supreme Court Justice in 1989, when he painted Thurgood Marshall. He has also painted likenesses of U.S. congressmen and state senators, former U.S. energy secretary Hazel O'Leary, civic leaders, sports figures, educators, religious leaders, military officers, businessmen and private individuals.

"I get excited about all of the portraits I do. I'm always interested in people, and I like getting to know each of the people I paint," he said.

The 65-year-old Knox said he turned to portraiture after years of painting a variety of subjects because he found there is nothing more interesting to paint than the human face.

"I think that a good portrait is the most difficult thing for an artist to bring off successfully. Not only must you get an accurate likeness, but you must create a good painting. Somehow, you must convey a subject's character, spirit and personality; and everything must communicate the dynamism of the subject," he said.

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February 28, 2001


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