Celebrity Portraits Take The Artist
From Blaze To Bush

Baltimore Sun Article by Carl Schoettler
April 13, 1995

Joe Sheppard's work will hang in the former President's library George Bush peers pleasantly presidential from painter Joe Sheppard's new portrait. From hers, Barbara Mikulski beams sincerely senatorial. In his portrait, John Waters appears cinematically saturnine. Leaning against a wall in Mr. Sheppard's studio over Rita St. Clair's Findings Gallery, President Bush's portrait is pack and ready for shipment to Houston where it's destined to hand in the $86 million George Bush Presidential Library Center, now a building.

So far, Mr. Bush has seen only photographs of the finished portrait. Mr. Sheppard's not worried: "Everybody who has seen it likes it." He's even been invited to have lunch with Mr. and Mrs. Bush next week in Houston. "I said if there's anything you don't like about the portrait, some simple thing, I could change it. I didn't get any answer back except for the invitation. So I imagine they like it." For Mr. Sheppard, the graying eminence of Baltimore realist painters, the Bush portrait is a sort of capstone to his return to portrait painting.

For years he had avoided portraits, the bane of many artists because portraitees are notoriously difficult to please. But then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer commandeered him to do the official portrait for the State House in Annapolis. Mr. Sheppard had painted Mr. Schaefer as mayor of Baltimore eight years earlier. "He sort of demanded I do him when he was governor," says the 64-year old Mr. Sheppard. "Now I'm into doing portraits and I'm excited about it." So post-trash filmmaker John Waters' portrait has just come off the Sheppard easel. A faintly matronly looking Senator Mikulski is posed against a splendid old Baltimore fireplace. Next to her, pianist Leon Fleisher stares soulfully toward the viewer.

Internationally acclaimed Baltimore tenor Chris Merrit virtually reaches out of a painting next to the door. "I never used to like to do them because I always had so much trouble with the subjects." Mr. Sheppard says. "Every portrait painter has this problem. Now all of a sudden everybody likes them. It's just completely turned around." Joe Sheppard graduated from the Maryland Institute in 1953 with the last group of artists who studied with Jacques Maroger, the great proponent of Old Masters techniques and mediums.

Mr. Sheppard went on to win a Guggenheim Fellowship and an enviable reputation as a realist painter in various guises and genres, a painter of landscapes, street scenes, and barrooms, boxers, strippers and saltimbanques. He's an accomplished sculptor whose most notable sculpture here is perhaps the Holocaust Memorial on Lombard Street.

Blaze Starr He has painted portraits on and off over the years, sometimes famously. He painted Blaze Starr long ago when he was bearded and a bit of a beatnik, and she was young and shapely and garbed mostly in pasties. "It ended up on the cover of Confidential magazine," he recalls. The cover story was "The Secret Story Behind the Painting." "I had just won the Gugggenheim and I said, 'Oh my God, they're going to take it away from me if they read this." But there was no secret: "It was just a made-up story, they had the picture and made up a story around it."

His Bush portrait began just before Christmas last year with a photo session in the former president's Houston office, "with views all around." "I was a little apprehensive because I've never painted a president before," he says. "And I think he was a little apprehensive, too. He doesn't meet painters every day. Be we got along very well, very quickly. We laughed a lot." Mr. Sheppard took about 100 photographs. He used to paint from life. But nowadays nobody likes to sit still for hours, even former presidents.

And Mr. Sheppard finds photographs give him freedom to interpret character. "I have so many poses and so many angles of the head that I really can be creative in putting them together," he says. "I have him facing left, I would face him right. I have him with his hands in his pockets. I have him in all kinds of light. The best pose I had was with his arms crossed. "And what I did, if you look at the painting, I've raised the one hand as if he's ready to talk. Gave it a little motion. I like to try to get some kind of action in the painting." Once Mr. Sheppard had finished his photography, Mr. Bush and Mrs. Bush invited him to lunch at their country club. "They were a wonderful host and hostess and I enjoyed it very much," he says. He came back to paint the portrait on Charles Street over his friend Rita St. Clair's gallery. "I would paint three or four hours a day, and I spent almost a month on his portrait because I wanted it to really be good and subtle," he says. "I have to slow down on these portraits because I'm really a very rapid painter. I could possibly paint a painting a day."

He painted Mr. Bush standing before the presidential seal and beside a globe, as a symbol of his interest in international affairs. "I like to pt little subtle things in it that have something to do with the subject, tell a little story," he says. Like most presidents While he was posing, Bush stood very stiffly with his hands under control at his side, "like most presidents I've observed," Mr. Sheppard says. "I think they've been told to be careful," he says. "You don't get any of these wonderful Mussolini gestures."

John Waters, on the other hand, was a natural. "He was accustomed to posing," Mr. Sheppard says. "He really poses easily. I guess every other photograph I took was a good pose." Mr. Waters is, of course, a film director renowned for his stock company of Fellini-esque actors. Mr. Sheppard painted him for a new book of portraits he's signed to do. He says he wanted nationally known people with character and "good heads." Ms. Mikulski, Mr. Fleisher and Mr. Merritt were also recruited for the new book. He and Mr. Waters got on really well, he says: "Because we could talk about Baltimore. He got in on the tail end of Martick's. I was there during the glory years. He came about 10 years later." Martick's Lower Tyson Street Tavern was Baltimore's truncated version of San Francisco's North Beach for the Baltimore Beat Generation. "We had Martick's to talk about," Mr. Sheppard says. "We had The Block to talk about because I did a lot of paintings down there.

He's very, very interested in what Baltimore used to be and the excitement that used to be here, and I used to paint all that. So we found a common chord right away." He made a short film of The Block in 1969 that Mr. Waters found pretty good. Mr. Waters likes his portrait, too. But he's unlikely to buy it. "I don't have any pictures of myself hanging in my house," he says. "Only one close-up of my mustache. It's obscene. I hate pictures of myself. I like to be on the other side of the camera." "I think he did a good job," Mr. Waters says. "Gee, I wish he'd asked me when I was 20. Who wants their portrait painted when they're 48? But he painted [Spiro] Agnew, so how could I resist sitting?" "he's a Baltimore personality," he says. "An old beatnik I respect. I always wanted to be a beatnik." Mr. Sheppard painted him against an Italian poster advertising his 1977 film "Desperate Living," with Jean Hill, Edith Massey and Mink Stoll. "Quite a character" "He's quite a character," Mr. Sheppard says. "I thought he was very interesting looking, and he's got a good head to paint. I like the expression. I think it's a maddening expression that makes you look at the picture." Mr. Waters thinks Mr. Sheppard should next paint Madeline Murray O'Hare, the ancient atheist. "She ended prayer in America right from her Northwood row house," he says.

The portrait of Senator Mikulski had its genesis last summer when she visited the farmhouse Mr. Sheppard and Rita St. Clair share in Tuscany, Italy. "She held court in the morning at our cafe," he says. "I don't serve cappuccino in the house. We all go down to the cafe in the piazza. She would go and the other Americans there would come over. She's a great storyteller so everybody loves her. "I noticed she started talking with her fist," he says. "She'd bang on the table to make her points. I said, 'Barbara, when you pose for me, I want that fist in there.' But I made her face sweet instead of angry, when she's usually angry." He laughs. "She has this image of a very powerful, strong little lady," he says. "I wanted to make her a little feminine." He had a space to fill in the portrait. "Rita said, 'Why don't you put a rose there?'" He did. "But I put thorns on it," he says.

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