A senator, an artist, another first

March 19, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

SIMMIE L. KNOX has been first lots of times. He was the first black to paint an official portrait of a Supreme Court justice -- Thurgood Marshall. His portrait of Mary McCleod Bethune was the first by a black artist to hang in the South Carolina capitol.

And yesterday, Knox was first again, unveiling his portrait of the late Maryland Sen. Verda Welcome. It becomes the first painting by a black artist in the official state collection.

Welcome, of course, was also a trailblazer -- the first black female state senator in the United States.

Welcome, who would have turned 84 yesterday, began her career as a school teacher and represented Baltimore for a quarter of a century in the House of Delegates and state Senate. She became known as a champion of civil rights and black institutions, including Morgan State University.

Knox's portrait, which will be displayed for six months in the State House and eventually will hang in the James Senate Office Building, depicts a smiling Welcome in front of a shelf of Maryland law books. Her luminous brown eyes gaze out brightly from the linen canvas.

Although Knox never met Welcome, who died last year, he captured her spirit, her daughter said at yesterday's ceremony.

"Without having met Mother," Mary Sue Welcome said, "to have captured her, her spirit, her gentleness, her kindness is just a marvel.

"You are indeed a marvel," Welcome told Knox.

Knox, who lives in Washington, D.C., has fashioned a comfortable niche painting portraits. He has done a series of Bill Cosby and his family, including a colorized reproduction of a photograph of a Cosby family wedding from the 1930s.

His portraits often rely on vivid color in the face and eyes. The Welcome portrait will clearly jump out from the collection of rather subdued portraits now dotting the walls in Annapolis.

Knox, a native of Aliceville, Ala., near Mobile, received his first artistic assignment in the third or fourth grade, when he was told to paint all of the religious icons in the Catholic Church. "They recognized something," he says.

By the time he left Temple University with bachelor's and master's degrees in art in the early 1970s, Knox was concentrating on abstracts. Eventually, he began painting portraits.

"I love abstract painting . . . but you've got a family. You've got to make the bills," Knox says.

Knox, 55, reveres the expressiveness and color of Peter Paul Reubens. "He was able to paint a painting and not varnish it," says Knox, referring to a painter's way of repeatedly painting over a picture to get it right. "He was able to do it in one process. I'm not sure I can quite do that."

"It's something we all struggle for in life -- being able to say a lot in a very limited number of words, or being able to say a lot in a few brush strokes," Knox says. "That's the goal, I think."

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