Simmie Knox Biography
Hit by Baseball, Switched Major to Art Education, Intimidated by Thurgood Marshall Commission
When Simmie Knox's portrait of President Bill Clinton was unveiled at the White House in June of 2004, it marked the first time an African-American artist had painted an official presidential portrait. A great deal of prestige accrued to Knox after he was selected to create the Clinton portrait, as well as one of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bill Clinton was not the first to appreciate Knox's talents, however; Knox built his career by painting portraits of various political and cultural figures, including comedian Bill Cosby. "You can't live in Washington, D.C., and not know Simmie Knox," Clinton administration energy secretary Hazel O'Leary told the Christian Science Monitor in 2001.
Knox was born on April 18, 1935, in Aliceville, Alabama. His father was a carpenter and mechanic. Knox's parents divorced when he was three, and he lived for a time with an aunt on a sharecropper farm in Leroy, Alabama, and later in Mobile. In that city he developed into quite a sandlot baseball player, able to hold his own with the neighborhood standout, future slugger Hank Aaron. Sometimes bottle tops and broom handles stood in for baseballs and bats in their games. "When you've played with bottle caps, baseballs are like basketballs," Knox told the University of Delaware Messenger.
Hit by Baseball
Knox's promising baseball career came to an end when he was hit in the eye with a ball. It took him more than a year to recover from his injury, and during that time a doctor recommended that he be given things to do that would make him exercise his eyes by focusing closely. Catholic nuns at Mobile's Heart of Mary School steered him toward drawing, and they were impressed when the youngster produced a set of images of the Stations of the Cross. There was no such thing as an art class for a young black student in the segregated South of the early 1940s, so the nuns arranged for Knox to take drawing lessons from a neighborhood mailman.
He stuck with drawing and painting while he was attending Mobile's Central High School, but he didn't see a career in art as a possibility at the time. He joined the military in the 1950s and used the money he made to enroll in college after he finished his term of service. By 1961 he was attending Delaware State College and working in a nearby textile mill when he created his first full-scale painting, a self-portrait. The painting turned into a moment of self-revelation for Knox.
"You begin to realize, at that age in those times, that you were suffering for silly reasons," he told the Washington Post, referring to the system of segregation under which he had grown up. "Once in your life, at that one moment, you'll sit and you'll look at yourself. I mean really look at yourself and ask: Who am I? What am I? What kind of person do I want to be? I knew, deep within me, that I wanted to be an artist."
Switched Major to Art
That realization didn't translate immediately to a change in career direction. Moving on to the University of Delaware, Knox majored in biology. His grades were just fair, but an instructor noticed the detailed drawings of amoebas and other organisms that Knox included with the assignments he turned in. The instructor suggested that Knox take some art courses, and Knox soon changed his major to art education. He convinced a friend to pose for him while he drew his portrait over and over and over. His aim was to become an art teacher, and after graduating from Delaware in 1967 he did just that. For 18 years, Knox taught at a series of schools and colleges in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., where he moved in 1972.
By that time, Knox had earned two more degrees by taking evening art classes: he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Tyler School of Art at Philadelphia's Temple University in 1970 and went on for a master's degree there two years later. At the time, abstract art was the style that ruled the art world. Knox adopted the style with some success, participating in a group exhibition at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art with such top names as Roy Lichtenstein and Philip Pearlstein. Knox also worked for a time at Washington's Museum of African Art.
But Knox was still dissatisfied. "With abstract painting I didn't feel the challenge," he told the New York Times. "The face is the most complicated thing there is. The challenge is finding that thing that makes it different from another face." He did several portraits, one of African-American abolitionist writer Frederick Douglass, and another of a Milwaukee executive named Bill Gehl. After losing a job at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 1980, he began to focus more seriously on portraiture. Despite his extensive art education, Knox has sometimes described himself as self-taught. He pointed to the fact that he never took a course in portrait painting, which was considered old-fashioned by the critics and theorists who dictated the art trends of the time.
After several slow years of selling paintings at Washington's Eastern Market, Knox got a break when artist David Driskell introduced him to Bill Cosby in 1986. The comedian, then at the top of the entertainment universe, took a liking to Knox's work and decided to bankroll it. "He told me to just focus on my craft, and he'd make sure work came my way," Knox told the New York Times. "He gave me the opportunity I needed to practice, practice, practice." Knox did several portraits of Cosby family members, and soon his name became better known among prominent African Americans in the Washington area.
Intimidated by Thurgood Marshall
Subjects who sat for Knox's portraits included boxer Muhammad Ali, Knox's childhood friend Hank Aaron, writer Alex Haley, musician Lou Rawls, and former U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, whom he painted in 1989. Knox was a bit intimidated by the august jurist, but "Thurgood Marshall calmed me down," Knox recalled to the Christian Science Monitor. "He could tell I was nervous. He told jokes, he told stories about his life. I came away feeling so good about the man." Another Supreme Court justice who sat for Knox was Bill Clinton appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was one of just a few white clients he had at first. "Race has played quite a role in this country," Knox observed to the Monitor. "There are those who, no matter how good I am, will never let me paint their portrait."
But Ginsburg was pleased with her portrait and recommended Knox to President Clinton. Knox had first gone to the White House, portfolio in hand, in 1992. He got nowhere at the time, but now doors began to open. Clinton interviewed Knox several times in 2000 and selected him for the official portraits of himself and his wife Hillary shortly before leaving office in 2001. Clinton met with Knox to pick the pose he liked from a series of sketches Knox had made. "He liked the tie, the way I captured the hands," Knox told Newsweek. But the artist worked mostly from photographs.
The Clinton portraits took several years to finish, and Knox (as quoted by Newsweek) characterized the experience as "my personal Super Bowl." The portraits were unveiled on June 14, 2004, at a White House ceremony. "For three years, I've been extremely nervous," Knox told the New York Times. "But today, I put it to rest. I will sleep tonight." Knox came to feel a strong kinship with Clinton owing to their shared experience of growing up poor in the South. And, approaching age 70, he looked to new challenges. He was available for portrait commissions, with prices ranging from $9,500 to $60,000, and he told an interviewer from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he hoped one day to paint anti-apartheid crusader and former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Christian Science Monitor, June 22, 2001, p. Arts & Leisure-13.
Daily News (New York), June 15, 2004, p. 8.
Messenger (University of Delaware), March 1996.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 16, 2004, p. A2.
New York Times, June 15, 2004, p. A20.
Newsweek, February 26, 2001, p. 9.
Washington Post, June 16, 2004, p. C1.
Simmie Knox, www.simmieknox.com (December 9, 2004).
"Simmie Knox, an Exceptional Portrait Artist," African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/1642/Simmie_Knox_an_exceptional_portrait_artist (November 24, 2004).
—James M. Manheim