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A Painter Draws Attention at Last

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2004; Page C01

The phone rings -- seven or eight calls in less than 15 minutes. There's a reporter from the BBC on hold. Then a photo editor, on a tight deadline, from People magazine.

They want an interview.

"I've just been 'under the radar,' so to speak, some sort of a secret -- that's what my friends say," artist Simmie Knox says of his recent acclaim. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

_____Clinton Portraits_____
Bill Clinton Video: President Bush unveils White House portraits of former president Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Video: President Bush welcomes former president Clinton and Sen. Clinton.
Transcript From Portrait Unveiling Ceremony (FDCH E-Media, Jun 14, 2004)
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They want a photograph.

They want a piece of Simmie Knox.

"This is surreal, all very surreal," says Knox, sitting -- right foot flat on the floor, the left one tapping -- inside his single-car garage turned studio, adjoining his four-bedroom Silver Spring home. "They Can't Take That Away From Me," on his favorite Hank Jones CD, plays in the background.

"I mean, I've been here all this time. I've just been 'under the radar,' so to speak, some sort of a secret -- that's what my friends say." He laughs.

The phone rings.

"Excuse me," he whispers to a visitor. "Hold on a sec."

Knox isn't a new discovery. The 68-year-old is well known among a certain coterie, having painted some of the most respected names in government (Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg), entertainment (Bill Cosby) and sports (Muhammad Ali and Hank Aaron).

But his latest two portraits are another matter. And since their lavish unveiling Monday in the White House's East Wing -- after talk of the "self-taught artist," the "son of a sharecropper," the "first black American to paint an official presidential portrait" grabbed headlines -- everyone, in an instant, took notice. Is it that in the world of portraiture, a black man, especially a poor black man reared in the segregated South, is a rarity? Or is it that Knox's portraits of Bill and Hillary -- oil paintings on linen, two years in the making -- are, quite simply, that impressive?

Is it both?

"You know," says Knox, "at the end of the day, the work always speaks for itself."

The phone rings again.

"I've been getting so many calls," Knox says to the person on the line. It's Bill Cosby -- whose help, in the past 20 years, jump-started Knox's career, with commissions for 12 portraits of family and friends. "With art, a person must believe in himself or herself in order to find the very best. That's what Simmie is doing," Cosby says. Knox's portrait of Cosby's son Ennis, painted in 1997 after he was murdered, hangs over the fireplace in the entertainer's Manhattan home.

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