Interview: David Lenz @ The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Jul. 8, 2009
A native Milwaukee resident living in Shorewood, David Lenz finally completed his commission for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., a portion of the honor in winning the first Outwin Boochever 2006 Portrait Competition sponsored every three years. His selection for the Portrait Gallery highlights an unusual composition that includes a portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver together with five Special Olympians, the oil on linen capturing the spirit of Shriver's work for those with intellectual disabilities. Titled Rare Halo Display: Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the oil painting required two years from thought to image, which included numerous sunset studies on Cape Cod, close to Shriver's summer home. Lenz's paintings illustrate numerous metaphors for these marginalized populations he chooses to portray, but only to those desiring to look and see them. In his studio, Lenz discusses the process of painting this prestigious commission.
Q: Is the portrait finally installed at the gallery in D.C., part of the Smithsonian?
A: On May 9th there was an installation ceremony to unveil and then install the portrait. Mrs. Shriver and many family members were there. Its a 36 by 70 inch portrait, right in the second floor rotunda, right across from George Washington. Its the first portrait in the entire gallery that is not a president or first lady.
Q: How was Mrs. Shriver chosen for the portrait?
A: When I won the portrait competition in 2006, I hoped to find someone that would represent my portraiture, painting those marginalized and just beneath the surface populations in our society. Mrs. Shriver, born in 1921, started Camp Shriver in her backyard during the 60's. This was the beginning to Special Olympics, before they first began in 1968, in Chicago at Soldiers Field. Now there are 1.3 million children from 150 countries involved in Special Olympics.
Q: And the other five people in the portrait? How were they chosen?
A: I wanted to paint, picture Mrs. Shriver in a universal setting, not at an awards ceremony. Although she was the creative force and credited with founding Special Olympics, she has said, Everyone is important, everyone is part of humanity, and has dignity, spirit, and faith. Her brother Anthony Shriver founded Best Buddies, similar to Big Brothers. Her sister Jean founded Very Special Arts. The family changed world opinions about these marginalized populations. Back in the 60s you didnt even admit you had a child with Down syndrome or intellectual disabilities. And in 1962 it was not
public knowledge that the President, President John F. Kennedy, had a sister with an intellectual disability. The five other people in the portrait portray these individuals, Special Olympians in some unique way.
Q: And Mrs. Shriver began to change, sway public opinion?
A: Yes, in 1962, after her brother was elected President, Mrs. Shriver wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post about her sister, Rosemary. Special Olympics was something she realized by playing sports with her sisterthat they were fun. This made these populations not just acceptable, but respectable with abilities that are celebrated.
Q: So who are the Special Olympians in the portrait?
A: The one at the very right, next to Mrs. Shriver is Marty Sheets. He was at the very first
Special Olympics and is still competing, the longest Special Olympic career of anyone. Loretta Claiborne, an African American, excelled in different areas, including running many marathons, and was one of the top marathoners in the country. Now she is a spokesperson for Special Olympics. Andy Leonard became one of the strongest power lifters in the United States. He dead lifted over 400 pounds even though he only weighed 114. He can overhead lift, or could, 300 pounds. Katie Meade is a spokesperson for Best Buddies, which pairs people with intellectual disabilities with a peer, and she speaks around the country. And the person on the left, raising her hands, is Airika Straka, a 12 year old girl from Wisconsin. She saved her mother's life when she went into diabetic shock by using the telephone, which she always had been afraid to do. Her life indeed demonstrates what Mrs. Shriver believeseveryone is important.
Q: How did it go, painting Mrs. Shriver?
A: I photographed her in '07, right after her 86th birthday, which is July 10. It doesn't seem fair to a woman, well, in fact even a man, to have your portrait painted at 86. So I tried to de-emphasize her age, and use backlight that is very favorable. She has never sought the limelight, and would do anything for people in Special Olympics. My son, Sam, participates every year, and so she agreed, was happy, to be painted with the Special Olympians. So she is looking at the people she cares about.