- Associated Press - Sunday, September 21, 2014

WILLIAMSTON, S.C. (AP) - Michael Del Priore can paint portraits quickly, but he does not do so lightly. Each brush stroke matters, he says, because a portrait is not just a picture but a legacy preserved on canvas.

With joy in his voice, Del Priore talks about his craft. To him, his talent comes from God, and his main role in the whole affair is to simply share that gift with others.

“It is not for me, this work,” Del Priore said. “It is for all those who are recipients. You didn’t just get that gift just to have a lot of fun or to make a lot of money. It behooves all of us to recognize our gift, to nurture it, take care of it and then give it to others.”

Del Priore has spent the better part of his 60 years living by that notion.

He has painted more than 600 portraits, including for such notables as former Senator Strom Thurmond, former President Ronald Reagan, House Speaker John Boehner and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Now, after more than 30 years as one of the nation’s leading portrait artists, he is stepping back from his work as a portrait artist so he can help the local arts community.

He is the director of the new Palmetto Area Cultural Arts Center in Williamston. He and his wife, Susan, live in Pelzer.

“I am trying to give back, and I am trying to help,” Del Priore said. “You know, you can be an isolationist, but in that case, all you know will go to the grave with you. I choose instead to make a big noise about what I love.”

What he loves is art and people.

A native of Columbia with Italian roots, Del Priore said he would draw on the chalkboards of his grade-school classrooms when he was a boy. Whenever a banner or some such thing was needed, he was often enlisted to help.

He said he knew he was to be an artist, but he just didn’t know what kind of art he would focus on.

Del Priore graduated from Columbia High School in 1972 and went to work at a newspaper, drawing illustrations for advertisements. On his lunch breaks he would go to the Richland Mall. It was there that he saw an artist, Gian Cassonie, who painted portraits at a booth.

“I would watch him every day,” Del Priore said. “One day, he caught me. He said, ‘Son, come over here.’”

That was the start of Del Priore’s long love of painting portraits.

Cassonie taught him what he knew. Eventually, Cassonie left, and Del Priore took his teacher’s spot in the mall.

Del Priore went on to study at the National Academy in New York. He studied under well-known artists such as Daniel Greene and Everett Raymond Kinstler, whose official portraits include former presidents Gerald Ford and Reagan.

“They not only taught me the rudiments of painting properly, but they also talked to me,” Del Priore said. “They educated me in the world of the arts.” Del Priore said his break came when he responded to an article in The State newspaper reporting that Thurmond was looking for an artist to paint his portrait.

Among the stack of applications that poured in, Del Priore’s was the one finally selected.

It turned out his status as a South Carolina native helped.

“It was narrowed down to me and one other person,” Del Priore said. “The only reason I won was because I was a native of South Carolina. The Carolinians have this wonderful heritage of taking care of their own.”

After that, his name and reputation spread to other people including politicians, business leaders and judges.

Three of his portraits, including one of Boehner, hang in the U.S. Capitol.

A portrait that he painted of Representative Henry Hyde was televised many times over the course of the impeachment hearings held for former President Bill Clinton because it hung behind Hyde’s desk.

“It was on every television station and in countless newspapers,” Del Priore said, laughing. “My career really opened up after that.”

In his career, he said he has painted about 45 judges, 30 business leaders and 30 members of Congress.

Del Priore said when he received the commission to work on Gates’ portrait, the subject of the painting was not revealed to him at first. He simply received a call and was asked how quickly he could complete a portrait of someone. He was given a week.

“I opened the package they mailed me, and there were these photos of Bill Gates,” Del Priore said. “They liked the portrait so much that they used it on the front cover of a book and in Cigar Aficionado, a national magazine. All of that happens because someone knows that I am a prolific painter.”

He said he can paint a large portrait of someone in a couple of weeks, or about three days if it is a smaller portrait. The speed has come about because of years of work.

His main goal, though, is to make sure that he brings out the best in the person being painted, he said.

Because of that, Del Priore has been privileged to sit in people’s homes and court chambers, and has been given the chance to preserve people’s likenesses for generations to come, he said.

“You have to have the desire to immortalize someone, to bring someone’s life to the canvas,” Del Priore said. “That is an incredible responsibility. I am trying to paint their life, so I always want to put them at their best. You want to bring out the warmth and gratitude in someone, to find their best side.”

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Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, https://www.andersonsc.com


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