Celebrity portraits take the artist from Blaze to Bush Joe Sheppard's work will hang in the former president's library

April 13, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Writer

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 packed and ready for shipment to Houston where it's destined to hang in the $86 million George Bush Presidential Library Center, now abuilding.

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 propped against a splendid old Baltimore fireplace. Next to her, pianist Leon Fleisher stares soulfully toward the viewer. Internationally acclaimed Baltimore tenor Chris Merritt 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 young and 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 Guggenheim 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. But 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.

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