Thursday, March 13, 2014
After 35 years, Dennis Kucinich’s City Hall portrait is finished at last
Matthew Hunt pauses before the reveal. From an easel, he lifts his painting of a young woman looking over her nude shoulder. Behind it stands a portrait Cleveland has awaited for 35 years.
Dennis Kucinich, his hair still black, looks to one side, his eyes narrowed into a thoughtful squint, serious and enigmatic.
“I was hired to go in and try to find the person behind the name and TV interviews, the stuff that everybody knows,” says Hunt.
When Kucinich was voted out of the mayor’s office in 1979, no one commissioned the traditional City Hall portrait. Moneyed civic leaders, aghast at Kucinich’s confrontational two years as mayor, wanted to forget him.
“I wanted a more quiet side,” says Hunt. “Especially because this was such a wrong that was done. I felt that I had a responsibility to try to make it right.”
In 2002, a new generation tried to correct the snub. Then-mayor Jane Campbell, city councilman Joe Cimperman and labor leaders threw a $20 kielbasa and pierogi fundraiser in a church hall in Tremont. The party raised about $12,000.
Then? Silence, delays, small occasional updates in The Plain Dealer’s “Whatever Happened To” feature.
Now, 12 years later, the portrait is finished.
Hunt, 42, won a contest to paint it in 2003. “They said [Kucinich] saw my work, and he really loved it,” he says.
Self-taught, Hunt began painting in 1998 and debuted with a show that year at the McCormick Place gallery in Hudson. He has a gift for painting realistic, psychologically profound depictions of people that invite the question, what is he or she thinking?
Paid a $7,250 advance to paint Kucinich, Hunt tried for three years to meet his subject. First, the then-congressman’s 2004 campaign for president got in the way. Then his office cancelled a post-election photo shoot in Washington. A year later, Kucinich called Hunt to say he’d make it happen. At last, in September 2006, Hunt spent a morning observing Kucinich at his Lakewood office.
“He would look down when thinking about something,” Hunt recalls. “He would hold his left hand to his head, but he would do this sort of squinting. It was really warm the way he did it, but it was very sincere, and it wasn’t for anyone else.”
Hunt watched Kucinich during a press conference and a meeting with aides and spent ten minutes taking reference photos of him. He headed back to his home studio in Copley, that look on Kucinich’s face still in his mind.
It took Hunt seven years to paint it. “I own the fact that it’s taken as long as it has,” he says.
At first, Hunt’s other work took precedence. Commissions rained down. Parents hired him to paint their children, companies their CEOs, universities their administrators.
Then, three setbacks brought Hunt’s work to a halt. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; when it was uncontrolled, his painting hand shook. His basement studio flooded, destroying much of his work. The financial crisis hit, and clients cancelled and retreated.
Now, Hunt has recovered. A sharp doctor helps keep his health troubles in check. “I’m able to work now the way I was,” he says. Jobs are flowing to him again. He recently accepted a commission to paint retired Lincoln Electric CEO John Stropki.
He also turned back to Kucinich. He collected ’70s photos to re-create how Kucinich looked in his early 30s. He studied ’70s suits and tie patterns to paint wide lapels and a diagonally-striped tie.
Thinking hard about Kucinich’s two years as mayor, he decided to add no symbolic props -- concerned that a hint of, say, the Muni Light battle might reduce his subject’s work to a single accomplishment.
Instead, Hunt depicted Kucinich in the mayor’s office, sitting on the edge of a bare desk. The viewer looks on from just above him, an unusual perspective meant to evoke Kucinich's populism. “I don’t think he has the need to be above anyone,” Hunt says.
Kucinich’s interlocked hands rest in the foreground, a symbol of him “bringing together people and different sides, and the struggle that he had,” Hunt says. (That’s a generous interpretation of Kucinich’s mayoralty, commonly criticized as divisive.)
Hunt worked hardest at Kucinich’s face, especially his mouth, which is caught between a slight smile and a hint of satisfaction.
“I didn’t want to have a degree of defeat or worry,” Hunt says. “I wanted to convey someone who was in charge, but someone who was taking the issues very seriously. He might be young, but he’s not a boy.”
Hunt painted the final brushstroke about six months ago. He plans to take it to Cleveland’s Bonfoey Gallery for framing.
When will the public see it? That’s unclear. Hunt’s not sure what’s next, because “there’s no client,” he says.
A portrait committee, made up of representatives of two unions and the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, owes him a second payment of $7,250 if the portrait is accepted. But whose job is it to accept the painting? The committee? Mayor Frank Jackson? Kucinich himself?
The long wait for Kucinich to join the pantheon of mayors is subtly symbolized in the painting itself. In 2006, Hunt noticed that Kucinich wore his watch upside down -- clasp up, face downward. He painted it that way. The clasp is just barely visible under his sleeve. “Time did sort of get flipped,” Hunt says.