Catherine Prescott talks to Kate Austin about the Emanuel Nine Tribute portrait project.
On June 17, 2015 at Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, South Carolina, nine lives were brutally taken. In collaboration with Principle Gallery of Charleston, nine noted artists seek to combat cruelty, falsehood, and hatred with beauty, truth, and unity. On May 29, 2016, portraits of the lost were donated to their loved ones at a reception hosted by Principle Gallery honoring the upcoming one-year anniversary of that tragic day. Through this gift, the artists hope to bring a small measure of comfort to our brothers and sisters who have lost so much. As Frederick Douglass famously wrote “Truth is of no color, God is Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
CIVA: Catherine, please tell us how you became involved with the Emanuel Nine Tribute project? And how was it decided that you would paint the portrait of Rev. Clementa Pinckney?
Catherine: Out of the blue last July I received a Facebook message from Lauren Tilden, an artist with whom I had exhibited several years ago. I admire her work, and she and I have corresponded some about our shows and paintings. She’s young and an outspoken Christian, and her figure paintings and landscapes are very strong, very beautiful and moving.
The message was confusing to me because it said a little about the project and named a group of artists participating, but my name wasn’t one of them. The message also connected the project with Principle Gallery Charleston. I’ve never shown there so I didn’t think they would know my work, though I had shown several times at Principle Gallery Alexandria, which has the same owner, Michelle Ward. Lauren assured me that they had indeed chosen me as one of the nine portrait painters, and I was really happy.
I didn’t hear much until the fall, except that they would be in touch with me regarding which family I was to work with. I had been praying for good pictures of whomever my subject would be. In October, while in Spain on vacation before going to Italy to teach for Gordon College, I received an email from Lauren saying that my assignment was to paint the Pastor of Emanuel Church, Clementa Pinckney. Well, I just put my face down in my hands and nearly wept because it meant so much to me to paint him. I immediately started looking for images and quotes and videos of him online, and collecting them in a folder. I had asked Lauren kind of casually about how this all came about, but she never really answered, probably out of humility. I had the names of the other artists, two of whom I knew and a couple of others whose work I was acquainted with, but I couldn’t imagine how they all got together. It didn’t seem to me to be a logical group. They are all competent and strong portrait painters so I knew the project was going to be very respectable. But as far as I know, only Terry Strickland is a Principle Gallery artist.
CIVA: Tell us a little more about how the Emanuel Nine Tribute project began.
Catherine: When the artists started talking about a catalog, and because I had been watching a video of Rev. Pinckney speaking about the history of the church, I wrote to Lauren and said that there ought to be a written history of the church in the catalog. She asked me to write it. I wrote back that I would be wiling to do this but that a short history of how the project came about should also be included since that that’s the first thing everybody wanted to know, even at that point.
Here is an excerpt from the catalog:
This portrait project was conceived by New Jersey painter, Lauren Tilden. She had long felt frustrated that her work never reached or helped the general public and after hearing about what happened in Charleston she wanted to give a gift of a portrait, knowing that Christ calls us to “mourn with those who mourn.” She contacted fellow painters Terry Strickland and Judy Takacs and asked Principle Gallery in Charleston if they would participate. All were enthusiastic. Together they chose six other painters and began with contacting the bereaved. Many wonderful stories have come from those contacts and Lauren has said, “While I was trying to give a gift, I felt like we were receiving a gift, which is usually how those things go.”
CIVA: I’m moved by the response you described when you heard you were chosen to paint Rev. Pinckney. Will you share a bit more about why it meant so much to you to paint this portrait specifically, and how it affected your thoughts and process as you began work on the piece?
Catherine: I think my response was just simple humiliation before God that I should be given such a gift and such a huge responsibility. Of all the social ills, race has always been the one that upsets me most. I hated racism as a little kid. I grew up in a very small town in Wisconsin in the 50’s but had close relatives in Louisiana. On our trips south I saw and heard some of the worst of it without actually growing up there and becoming embedded in the talk and attitudes. It remained strange and terrible to me; after every visit we got in our car and drove back past the tiny shacks with no doors. I remember so clearly the faces and clothes of the children standing near the road on bare ground with no grass, no tree, no swing, watching us go by on our way north.
My older sister went to Duke and was, for a long time, involved in nonviolent civil rights demonstrations under the leadership of Martin Luther King. She lay down in the streets to stop traffic and white men peed on her. She was jailed. In 1968-70 I was teaching in an all-girls high school in the Baltimore City Public Schools. The student body was 99% black and the teachers were about ninety percent white and older, because they had been there since before white flight. Many were terrible racists and said vulgar, grotesque things about the students. When the riots began, I watched as white policemen in riot gear came down the hall and beat my girls with billy clubs. I was called a communist and the teachers would stand in a line and block the stairs so I couldn’t get to my class. My conversion to Christianity came at the end of that time in 1970, partly as a result of the turbulence of the times and my involvement in it.
I’ve read a lot of books about race, but I’ve never addressed it as a painter. I don’t like art with a political agenda, and I feel shut down by a painting that treats me like a target, and tries to tell me what to think. (Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is a marvelous exception to that.) At the moment that I put my head in my hands, I think I saw a chance to allow my feelings about racial injustices into my work, to expose the anguish of all those things I had seen without using someone for my own political agenda, without exploiting someone else’s anguish for my own satisfaction.
At the time I was given the assignment for this project, I didn’t know much about Clementa Pinckney specifically, but I knew that Emanuel AME Church has been very important in the history of civil rights and that the attack was, by the killer’s own admission, racist in nature, an ideological act of terror. I thought Rev. Pinckney must be a remarkable man to be the pastor of such a church. And, of course, once I started reading about him and listening to his words, both in the Senate and in the church, I found that to be absolutely, profoundly true. I cried many tears while I was painting his portrait. All of the artists in this project have said that they experienced tremendous grief doing these portraits.
I looked at lots of pictures of Rev. Pinckney online and watched videos of him speaking. As with most things, it’s knowing the details that helps you become devoted to the subject and encourages the precision required to depict the subject well. John Updike had an obnoxious character in the only book of his I don’t like, The Witches of Eastwick, but, as always with Updike, even the most loathsome character can make an insightful remark: “Precision is where the passion begins, eh?” I was stunned when I read that because that’s my experience, but I never thought to voice it. And that’s what you have to get to if you’re going to do a good painting. Of course it follows that you come to love the person through the act of painting, of attending to those details. I’m pretty sure this is the case with God, that we are his best paintings. I get a little glimpse of what steadfast love is like when I’m working hard on the details of a painting.
CIVA: That is a beautiful metaphor. Within the context of this idea of steadfast love coming through the act of painting, was the experience of painting the portrait of Rev. Pinckney different from the others you have painted? How so?
Catherine: No, it’s not different in kind, but certainly in intensity: not different in kind because that’s what I do or hope to do with every painting, even a still life. Any good painting has to be a result of doing the work of picturing the content of the piece. In my case, the content is often primarily emotional, even though I’m painting a portrait from photographs, so it requires a lot of openness to what may seem like irrational decisions…something I may never have done before in a painting. I find myself thinking, why the heck am I wiping out this whole section and painting yellow over it? Or, it looks better with that one eye a little higher and squinting just a little. When I say “primarily emotional” I mean it can’t be voiced, but is something that I recognize when I see it. In fact, for me, verbalizing it is a mistake because it makes me think I am illustrating an idea or a feeling, which is deadly. The process of detail on top of detail, change this, change that, is what brings it to a point where it looks like what I want. With portraits, part of what I always want is a convincing presence of the person, and that wanting has to be strong enough that it will drive the choices I make, little by little. I have to trust that those things will add up and not judge the little pieces as I go. In my experience, a painting has to have that happening in the act of painting because every mark, every color mixed, every decision to either leave or change something that happened by accident, is driven by that desire. That is the hard work of it. You have to be willing to stand on your head naked to get it.
Years ago my husband, Ted Prescott, brought the critic Hilton Kramer to Messiah College for a lecture and for a reception in our living home afterward with students and faculty. He was sitting on the piano bench right next to me and a student asked what, to me, was an appallingly naive question. I assumed it required too complex and too long an answer: “What makes great art?” she asked. Kramer didn’t miss a beat and said it in three words: “conviction of feeling.” I had never thought to use the word conviction for that intangible thing I’m talking about, that desire that makes you sure, makes you totally focused. It’s an important word because that’s what God possesses all the time about everything, only to a much, much greater and fuller degree than we can ever fathom. His purpose is the first cause and is perfectly aligned with His love. I think that’s a little of what the phrase “God is Love” is about, which is a very hard statement to reckon with. When he pronounces something that he made good, his desire for it is precisely what makes it good. So that’s what I mean about experiencing a little taste of what steadfast love means when I paint. The love is before and behind everything.
CIVA: Have you ever done a project like this in the past?
Catherine: I’ve done only two posthumous portraits before and they weren’t my best work because I never saw or met the subjects. They had both died of natural causes and at a much later age than Clementa Pinckney, and I wasn’t particularly close to the reason they were so important to people. But this portrait of The Honorable Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney was very different because I already had such strong feelings about race, as I have said.
One of the resistance movements in the history of the AME church was planned by an Emanuel pastor, Denmark Vesey. In 1821 he developed a comprehensive plan of escape but never brought it to fruition because the authorities found out about it. Thirty-six people, including five other leaders, were executed. Rev. Pinckney, as a South Carolina State Senator and the Senior Pastor of Emanuel, led the Senate in passing a law that required law enforcement officers to wear video cameras. He taught his church and his community how to take responsibility for their righteous indignation in the face of injustices and to count the cost. In 2012 he said, “Sometimes you have to make noise and be unpopular and sometimes you even have to die, like Denmark Vesey did.” So my sense of who he was as a leader strongly affected my desire to get it right…to get him right. I wanted to be true to his profoundly thoughtful intelligence, his devotion to God, and his voice for righteous indignation in the face of injustices. I am reminded of the quote by St Augustine, “As I am able but not exactly as I will.”
CIVA: It is a privilege to be able to interview you during the time while you are in Charleston for the unveiling and presentation to the families. What is it like to interact with the other portraitists who have shared this intense assignment over the past months and are now together in one place this weekend?
Catherine: We had gotten to know each other pretty well in the context of working through ideas and supporting each other through the hard work of doing the paintings and then framing and shipping them. Then there were so many emails back and forth about transportation, hotel reservations, planning the events, and especially about the catalog, designed by Ricky Mujica and edited by Terry Strickland. We all wanted to make something happen and have it be consistent and well done. Unfortunately we couldn’t all be there; two artists couldn’t come, and we really missed them. There were a few whose names and work I didn’t know, but we had so much in common by the time we got together in Charleston that we needed no introduction to each other. We were definitely a team. Hugs all around.
Principle Gallery Charleston, the director, Frank Conrad Russen, and his assistants, were also a strong part of the team. Frank was undaunted by tropical storm “Bonnie” which was forecast to rage through the weekend. Not one guest came to the Saturday night meet-and-greet reception for the artists. Lauren told me with a straight face that because flooding was expected no one would come to the Sunday reception for the families and the church when the paintings would be seen for the first time. Frank remained enthusiastic and rolled everything forward as though “Bonnie” weren’t in town.
Lauren Tilden is an unusual leader, very humble and soft-spoken, but she has a LOT of drive. She had an amazingly consistent focus on the goal and kept the priorities out in front without trying to control us. She was good at trusting us to be responsible for what she asked us to take on. She also maintained an even helping hand, answering questions and solving problems for many months. She maintained a positive attitude without a hint of pie-in-the sky, fake hope. And she was watchful and conscious about making things happen. There are so many details for a project that big, involving that many people, and when something verged on collapsing, she had this steady way of just trying it again and again. I told her the last time we talked that I assumed there had been moments where she had to throw herself on the bed and kick her feet and scream and she said “yes” with a smile. One would never have known it. Like so many accomplishments and challenges in our lives, if she had known ahead of time what a huge and difficult project she was taking on, she might have been intimidated and perhaps even been paralyzed by it. She told me that “Bonnie” was that one last way for God to let her know she wasn’t in control.
Dr. Maxine Smith, whose children are third generation members of Emanuel AME Church, is a consultant in Communications and Public Relations. Last year she went to work full-time at the church to manage the chaos and devastation created by the June 17 attack. She told me that the reason our project worked so well—and so many family members and people from the congregation of Emanuel respected it enough to come to the reception—was that, from the beginning, Lauren put the families first. She started by contacting them, asking them what they wanted, and putting them in contact with the artists. There have been several other groups as well as individuals who have done portraits and other art projects as tributes and gifts for the victims’ families and the church, but they never brought the families in. As a result their events haven’t been well received or attended, at least not in the numbers that we saw at Principle Gallery on May 29.
One of the things that united us as artists was the grief we carried for the victims and for the church. We were bound by a common purpose and spoke of our tears together. But I don’t think we really understood what we had done until we walked into the gallery and saw the portraits, framed and hung side by side, with all the people from the church looking at them, up close, in groups, identifying their loved ones. It was an eloquent testimony to that steadfast love: ours, theirs, and God’s. One of the many sisters of Myra Thompson, whose beautiful portrait was painted by Stephanie Deshpande, sat beside me while I wrote my name in her catalog and said to me, “God chose you to do this and you will forever be associated with it.” What a word.
CIVA: Catherine, it has been an honor. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us. And thank you to all the artists involved in the project for participating in this work of healing.
Catherine Prescott is a long time CIVA Member, has exhibited her portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. She has received 16 top prizes in competitions at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, the Salmagundi Club in New York, the Portrait Society of America, and other venues. She taught painting and drawing at Messiah College for 20 years.
Kate Austin is the Membership and Exhibits Coordinator at CIVA. She studied art education at Wheaton College and taught Elementary Art for seven years.
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