Person of the Week: Simmie Knox

Celebrated artist Simmie Knox earned his place in history this week as he became the first black artist to paint an official presidential portrait. His oil painting of former President Bill Clinton was unveiled Monday during a ceremony at the White House.

"I thank Simmie Knox for giving Hillary and me the chance to be a part of history," President Clinton said in his remarks during the ceremony. Knox also painted the portrait of former first lady Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The honor wasn't lost on Knox.

"It's the big one, some have said it's the plum, there are a number of names that can describe it, but for me it was major, because I realize there has never been an African-American to paint a portrait of a president and being the first, that's quite an honor and quite a challenge," Knox said.

Knox, 68, does his work in a garage studio at his Silver Spring, Md., home. His love of jazz music helped him connect with Clinton during their sessions.

"He plays saxophone. See, there's a connection," Knox said. "You listen to that [music], it just gets to me, man. Really does."

Knox suspects word of mouth was instrumental in getting him the presidential commission.

A professional artist for 25 years, he has painted portraits of Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and more recently, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"What you're trying to do when you make a portrait, I think, is tell a story," Knox said. "It tells you the things the person experienced. It tells you about the things that helped to shape this person."

Simmie, which is what he prefers to be called, worked on President Clinton's portrait for about a year.

The former president didn't have to sit for days on end. Instead, artist and subject met a couple of times, and Knox then worked from photographs and his own impressions.

"He was pleased," said Knox. "In fact, when he saw it he said, 'I like it, I like it, I like it,' a number of times."

Presidential Disapproval

Portrait painters have not always been so favored.

President Lyndon Johnson said his official portrait by Peter Hurd was the ugliest thing he had ever seen.

George Washington complained bitterly about having to sit still for the famous portrait by Gilbert Stuart that now hangs in the East Room of the White House.

The presidential paintings are such a part of the American narrative.

John Singer Sargent's painting conveyed a certain sadness in President Theodore Roosevelt's eyes. Artist Mather Brown's portrait of Thomas Jefferson was painted even before he became president.

President John Quincy Adams would apparently sit still for any artist. It seems there are Adams portraits everywhere in the White House.

G.P.A. Healy's portrait of Abraham Lincoln shows him deep in thought, while Ronald Reagan's portrait by Everett Kinstler is more impressionistic than most others.

"You're wondering if you can pull it off, if you can portray him in a manner that he'll be pleased with, the public will be pleased with," Knox said. "I just wanted him presented in a manner that would say, 'Take me as I am.' "

Humble Beginnings

Simmie Knox was born to a poor family of sharecroppers in Alabama.

"We worked literally from sunup till sundown, in the field, whatever there was to be done," Knox said. "You didn't go to school; you worked on the farm."

But Knox could draw.

Finally his father put him in a Catholic school, where the nuns noticed his talent. He went eventually to Temple University, where he studied art.

It was a painting he did of Frederick Douglass in 1976 that convinced him to stick with portraits.

"That's quite a leap, that's quite a leap. It was quite an honor, and I never imagined or ever thought that I would have an opportunity to paint a Supreme Court justice, not to think of painting a president," Knox said.

Knox has enjoyed the attention this week, he said, but he is looking forward to getting back to the solitude of his work — complete with a little jazz by Charlie Parker playing in the background.