Simmie Knox, African American artist stands beside his portrait of Frederick Douglass in the Maryland Governor’s mansion.
To Simmie Knox a face is an open book.
“Everything is in the face – joy, sorrow, kindness, mean-spiritedness…,” he said.
That ability to read faces and, in so doing, capture the essence of an individual is what has made him the premier portraitist he is today, with a career spanning almost half a century and a portfolio filled with the who’s who of American society.
“I paint the image captured when I meet that person,” said Knox of his work, which is known for its intricate, vivid detail and realism.
His skill was forged early on from both natural talent and his environment.
Born on Aug. 18, 1935, in Aliceville, Ala., Knox spent much of his childhood with relatives after his parents divorced. Life was hard as his relatives were poor sharecroppers, and he himself worked in the fields.
Later, he moved to Mobile, Ala., to live with his father, a carpenter and mechanic, and his stepmother. It was there his artistic talent began to flourish.
The teachers at his Catholic school arranged for him to get art lessons from a local postal worker, since there was no formal art education at his segregated school. And his family also supported his calling—every night, Knox said, his stepmother would get paper bags from the grocery, iron them out and place them, along with a snack, on the kitchen table for him to practice.
Knox’s knack for reading faces, however, was learned from the school of life—a stern, unforgiving and dangerous Jim Crow South.
“I grew up in the South, where you had to be able to look at a person when they were approaching you and be able to watch their face and immediately tell whether they were friend or foe,” he said.
That survival skill would prove to be his ticket out of poverty and into a long, fulfilling career.
“It (art) has opened doors for me. It is the one thing that has stabilized my life,” Knox, now 79, said.
The painter, however, did not immediately focus on his now-specialty.
After a stint in the military and at Delaware State University, where he majored in biology, Knox matriculated at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts in 1970 and 1972, respectively.
Knox launched his career in abstract painting—it was all the rage at the time, he said, so he “got with the program”—and he achieved moderate success. In 1971, his work hung alongside other prominent artists in the Thirty-Second Biennial of Contemporary American Painting exhibit at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He also exhibited as an abstract artist and worked for the Museum of African Art in the District throughout the ‘70s.
In addition to painting, Knox worked extensively in art education, including teaching at Bowie State and Lincoln universities, and, lastly, Duke Ellington School of the Arts from 1975-1980.
But abstract art and even teaching, Knox found, were not enough to satisfy his artistic drive.
“I wasn’t really happy with abstract painting because I didn’t feel like I was being challenged,” he said. “Whenever I get to the point where I feel I have arrived, I push the goal post back.”
Portraiture, Knox found, was the ultimate challenge—reproducing minute details, capturing the unique qualities that make each face different and depicting the personalities of each subject is not something just anyone can do.
“I still get butterflies after 50 years of doing this,” Knox said.
In 1976, Knox completed his first portrait, that of iconic abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which now hangs in the Smithsonian. It wasn’t his best work, Knox said. Still, by the early 1980s he had devoted his work exclusively to rendering life-like portraits.
“There were so many people doing monumental things that need to be portrayed in an elegant, monumental way,” Knox said of his new focus.
Civil rights icon-turned-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was one of those “monumental” personages—and the painting that proved the most daunting.
“It was quite an experience,” Knox recalled of the commission, which he completed in 1989. “I had just embarked on this journey of doing portraiture. To paint someone of such importance so early in your career was intimidating. I wanted to be sure I got it right.”
He did, and over the years, he immortalized on canvas other luminaries such as baseball great and childhood friend Hank Aaron, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, historian John Hope Franklin and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At the time of the AFRO interview, Knox was on his way to Massachusetts to discuss doing a portrait of Deval Patrick, the state’s first Black governor.
In 2000, he received his most important commission yet—painting the official White House portraits of then-President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton.
L-R. Katie O’Malley, Governor O’Malley, Simmie Knox, Artist, Sylvia and Eddie Brown and Theodore “Ted” Mack. The painting was commissioned by Eddie Brown, CEO of Brown Capital Management.
“It was challenging. I know in this business you live and die based on your last work. One portrait can sink your ship…and I just knew this was one of those portraits,” Knox said.
In 2004, the portraits were unveiled to rave reviews, making him the first African-American to paint an official presidential portrait.
“I got through it and he (President Clinton) was pleased. If I hadn’t gotten through that you would not be talking to me right now,” Knox said with a laugh.
Recently, Knox helped make history again when his portrait of Frederick Douglass—different from the one he completed in 1976—became the first to be displayed at Maryland’s governor’s residence in Annapolis.
“It is significant,” said Knox, a Silver Spring, Md. resident, of the recent unveiling. The commission highlights a commitment to diversity and a further exorcising of the specter of racism that continues to haunt people of color—even famous painters like himself, Knox said.
“It raises its head every now and then, this monster called racism,” the portraitist said. “You still have places like Ferguson, Missouri, after all. I know there are some persons’ faces I will never paint because of my color.”