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Painter Simmie Knox is the first African-American artist to create an official U.S. presidential portrait. He debuted his portrait of President Bill Clinton in 2004.
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Simmie Knox was born in 1935 in Aliceville, Alabama. After grad school, he exhibited abstract works and taught at various universities and public schools. Since 1981, he has specialized in oil portraiture, and has been commissioned by everyone from U.S. Supreme Court Justices to celebrities. In 2004,
"Painting has taught me patience and persistence. I make big pictures with tiny brushes. Sometimes it's not always the size of your hammer, or the size of the rock, but it's how often you hit that rock."
"Race has played quite a role in this country. There are those who, no matter how good I am, will never let me paint their portrait."
"The face is the most complicated thing there is. The challenge is finding that thing, that makes it different from another face."
Born on August 18, 1935, in Aliceville, Alabama, leading African American portrait artist Simmie Knox has created vivid, lifelike renderings of such luminaries as President Bill Clinton and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He is the son of a carpenter and mechanic. But he spent many of his childhood years in the care of other family members after his parents divorced. Knox grew up poor with most of his family working as sharecroppers, and he himself took to the fields when he was old enough. "We worked literally from sunup till sundown ... whatever there was to be done," he told ABC News, adding, "You didn't go to school; you worked on the farm."
Later Knox went to live with his father and stepmother in Mobile, Alabama. There he loved to make little sketches and to play baseball. One of his childhood friends was baseball legend Hank Aaron. At the age of 13, Knox was struck in the eye with a baseball. With encouragement from his teachers at his Catholic school, he started drawing as a way to help his eye recover from the injury. The nuns who educated him recognized his talent and arranged for him to have lessons from a local postal worker. No formal art education was available at his segregated school.
After graduating from Central High School in Mobile, Alabama, in 1956, Knox spent several years serving in the military. He then attended Delaware State College as a biology major. While he didn't excel at science, Knox did some wonderful sketches of microorganisms. One of his professors recommended that he take some art classes. While at Delaware State, Knox completed a full-sized self-portrait, one of his notable early art works.
After completing his studies at the University of Delaware in 1967, Knox enrolled at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. There, he earned a bachelor degree in fine arts in 1970 and a master's degree in fine arts two years later. At the time, abstract art was all the rage. Knox painted in this style for a time and even got the chance to display his works at a prominent Washington, D.C. gallery. His paintings hung alongside Roy Lichtenstein and other leading artists in this show.
Still Knox wasn't completely satisfied with his abstract work. He painted a portrait of freed slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1976, which now part of the collection at the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to painting, Knox worked extensively in art education. He held many teaching positions, including being an instructor at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts from 1975 to 1980.
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Explore our collection of pioneering African Americans in government and politics, including Alexander Lucius Twilight, the first African American to win election to public office; Hiram R. Revels, the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate; Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman elected to the Senate; and Amelia Boynton, who became both the first African-American woman and the first female Democratic candidate to run for a seat in Congress from Alabama in 1964. View full biographies, photos, videos and more, only at Biography.com.
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