Simmie Knox: Meet the Artist Who Painted the State House Portrait of Governor Patrick

He said the Governor is 'up there with those great Americans.'

Photo via Associated Press

Deval Patrick Photo via Associated Press

Simmie Knox has been in the presence of presidents, judges, senators, and congressmen, and used his paintbrush and oil painting techniques to portray their likeness and carry on their legacies.

Earlier this week, he added one more notable person to his ever-growing list of elected officials that he’s had the honor of painting: Governor Deval Patrick.

At a ceremony at the State House on Sunday evening, a large canvas painting by Knox, who believes that a good enough portrait done in oil paints can essentially capture a subject’s spirit and personality, was unveiled, and will soon join the ranks of other paintings hanging inside the municipal building, marking Patrick’s eight-year term as governor of the Commonwealth.

Noted by Knox as being “up there with those great Americans,” like Hillary Clinton, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall, and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, the artist said working with Patrick was a highlight of his career.

“He’s a wonderful guy,” he said.

Patrick specifically picked Knox to do the painting, which came at a cost of $45,000 and was paid by private donors, after becoming familiar with the artist’s work through Judge Stephen Reinhardt, whom Patrick clerked for.

Boston caught up with Knox in the days after the ceremony to find out what it’s like to sit with some of the nation’s most prominent leaders, and the pressures that come with getting a portrait done just right:

Is this the first time you’ve done a portrait for the Massachusetts State House?

That’s the first one I have painted for the State House there in Boston, yes.

How was it working with the Governor?

Oh, he’s a wonderful guy. I was excited about it. Anytime you get excited about your subject, that motivates you and you take a lot to the portrait. I was excited about it all the way. I pulled out all of the stops for him.

What stops or techniques specifically?

Well, you know, you drink a little bit more coffee, you stay up just a little bit later [working on the portrait], and you get up in the morning. I was motivated. He’s a wonderful person and I was so impressed with him over the years, and I was just excited to do it and thrilled to have that opportunity.

Any other techniques?

I try and get so much done in one day, and I stay with it, and I get me a little music going because it gets me in a space. I love jazz music, so I play a little jazz and get comfortable. Then you can concentrate and focus. I mix my colors during the daylight hours, and when you do that, at night, you have your colors mixed, mostly. So then you can work late at night.

What was your reaction when you first got the call asking you to do a portrait of Governor Patrick?

Well, I was pleased. You know, it’s like, you wish you had certain things, and it’s one of those times ‘be careful what you ask for,’ and it showed up! So, you know, that’s the way my life has been repeatedly, and I’m beginning to believe that if you just ask you will receive.

As far as the subject matter, you’ve done so many of these portraits of notable people. You’ve done Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton—the list goes on and on.

Mmmhmm. Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—I’ve been blessed. Oh, yes, I have been blessed. I never thought coming from where I come from that this would ever happen to me, so I’m just delighted. Every day that I wake up, I say, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’

As for the Governor’s portrait, what was the process you followed to finish it?

I have painted so many portraits. Until I have learned to look at you for a brief period, and once you move, and talk—in all of those movements there is something repeated—and that is the likeness of the person that you have to pick up, and that’s what you work for. Of course, I used photographs [to paint my portraits] because no one wants to sit with me for two hours each day, [wearing] the same clothes, for two weeks. So I make pictures, and when I see you, that’s what I try to paint for: my mental recollection of the person I talked to and observed, but you use the photograph for the composition.

So the only session where they are standing and posing is when you take the photos?

Yes, and I talk to them. And observe them. I make about 30 or 40 pictures, and from that I have to get one I feel is workable and represents that person that I spoke with. That’s part of the process for me, that’s how I work. I don’t expect people to sit for me for two weeks—especially people that are busy.

Is that how long it takes to do the portrait? Two weeks?

I don’t put a time on them. I find it’s best to get it right, as opposed to getting it done. If you don’t get a portrait right, then all you have is a painting. Portraiture is different. It’s not as forgiving as paintings are. If you don’t get the likeness of the person, or something about the person, then you didn’t get the portrait done. So I give it whatever amount of time it takes, but you try and stay within a deadline.

What was your deadline?

December 15. But I was about five days late [laughs].

When you went in to take the photos, what was it like spending time with the Governor?

Well, you talk, and you talk about things, you talk about family, you talk about sports, you talk about current events—you just talk. It’s just a catalyst for having the chance to engage with your subject, and whenever you can do that, you can kind of pick up on things, and see things that say, ‘this is that person.’ When I get that series of photographs, for me, I can look through those and get one that’s close, and that’s all you can get. Then you include the rest with your technical skills.

Did you learn anything fun about the Governor during that part of the process?

You pick up enough to say ‘this is what I feel represents the person.’ That’s what I have picked up as a portrait painter. I don’t put them on a couch and do that thing, and read psychology. I don’t do that stuff. But, you know, he is a wonderful guy to work with. He was very engaging.

Once you started the portrait, did you feel any extra pressure doing this one in particular?

No, I take each one very seriously. It’s just a process, and I have been doing it long enough. It requires a lot of things you have to get right before you get around to the painting of the portrait. But it was the same as most of them. You just have to get it done.

On a scale of all the portraits you’ve done of notable people, where does the Governor’s rank?

Well, he’s up there at the top. But so are Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Mayor Mario Cuomo. He’s up there with those great Americans. Fundamentally, they are all just nice people, and I have been honored to have the opportunity to meet so many.

With the Governor’s portrait finished and going up, what’s next on the list?

Well, [Tuesday] they are unveiling one at the Capital of Congressman John Conyers, Jr. He is retiring, so that’s being unveiled tomorrow, and this is the second one I have painted of him. And, you know, just some judges. I paint lots of judges.

How many are you working on at a time?

I usually have one at a time. I try and stay focused on one, because there’s continuity when you do that. If you do too many at once you can get disconnected. I do that until it’s 99 percent done. Then you need to just put a highlight here, and your signature on it. I stay with it. With this past one, I put it aside, and I can move onto the next one. I have some going now that I’m painting.

Do you think you’ll get to do one of President Obama?

I would love to have that opportunity. I don’t know. I’m asking again. Who knows, I may get that call. He is aware of me, because he is there with the ones I painted of Bill and Hilary Clinton, and I have also painted one of his Attorney General, Eric Holder. That hasn’t been unveiled yet, but I painted that one. He’s aware of me.

Maybe that will be the next call.

I hope it is. If it is, I’m going to let you know. I hope you’re right.

We’ll be here.