- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Simmie Knox, the first black artist to paint an official presidential portrait, is preparing to unveil his oil painting of former President Bill Clinton in a ceremony today at the White House.

“My mind hasn’t completely wrapped around it yet,” Mr. Knox said from his Silver Spring, Md., home. “Just imagine: I was born in 1935 in Aliceville, Alabama, a sharecropper, and now I’m painting the president. Can you imagine that?”

The self-taught artist, best known for his portraits of black celebrities such as baseball legend Hank Aaron and comedian Bill Cosby, also will unveil a painting of the former first lady, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

At the former president’s request, the oil painting is set in the Oval Office. It will be the first presidential portrait in the White House collection to include the American flag.

Mr. Knox, who met with Mr. Clinton just before the former president left office, said he felt especially connected to him because they grew up under similar circumstances — in a poor family in the segregated South.

“I think that’s why he has the compassion that he has,” Mr. Knox said. “He knows how it feels to have lived a certain life and to have been deprived of things.”

At their meeting, Mr. Knox took dozens of photographs and discussed what Mr. Clinton, 57, would like to see in the portrait.

“You need to get your mind’s eye image,” Mr. Knox said. “Once I see you, I’ll never forget you. When I don’t know you and I work from an image in a photo, I’m really feeling in the dark, but when I meet with you and talk to you, it really registers, and all I need is one good exposure.”

The portrait of Mr. Clinton for the other official presidential collection, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, will be done by artist Nelson Shanks, a gallery spokeswoman said.

Official portraits of presidents and first ladies often are unveiled at the same time, but rarely by the same artist. Mrs. Clinton asked Mr. Knox to paint her after seeing some mock-ups of her husband’s portrait.

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