Meet Presidential Portrait Artist Simmie Knox

American Artisans, Hometown Heroes, People
on July 17, 2005

Simmie Knox grew up in rural Alabama in the 1930s and ’40s, never dreaming he’d become an artist. “You didn’t dream what you didn’t know,” says Knox of Silver Spring, Md. “And I didn’t know what art was.”

But it was art that earned Knox, 69, a place in history. On June 14, 2004, an official presidential portrait of former President Bill Clinton was unveiled at the White House, and Knox was the man behind the brush—the first African-American to earn the honor of painting a presidential portrait.

“When the portrait was unveiled, I couldn’t believe it,” Knox recalls. “I had to keep pinching myself.”

Born in Aliceville, Ala., Knox went to live with his aunt and her children in LeRoy, Ala., after his parents separated when he was 3 years old.For many years, Simmie picked cotton with his sharecropping relatives from the break of dawn until day’s end. “When there wasn’t a harvest to be picked, I went to school,” Knox says. “I had a few teachers along the way recognize that I liked to draw, and they encouraged me.”

When he could, Knox sketched his friends on brown paper bags, and created his own style of comic characters. He later pursued his penchants for art by graduating from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park, Pa., in 1971. Still not ready to call himself an artist, Knox worked for an advertising agency and taught art for 18 years at various institutions such as Bowie State University in Maryland, and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Now, more than 50 years later, I can say I have the ability to create art,” he says. “Getting the likeness on the painting is good, but you have to capture the essence of the subject, and I can do that.”

Convincing President Clinton that Knox should paint his presidential portrait wasn’t an easy task. “I had been trying to get the attention of President Clinton for a number of years,” Knox says. “Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was so pleased with a portrait I did of her, she told Hilary Clinton. I was invited to the White House after that.”

Knox began Clinton’s portrait as he does most others. He spent 45 minutes taking photographs, and then drew a detailed sketch.

At the White House unveiling last year, Clinton recalled inspecting Knox’s portfolio. “I looked at his work and was profoundly moved.”

Knox has painted countless portraits, bringing to life on canvas the likes of entertainer Bill Cosby, baseball legend Hank Aaron and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

“And every single one of them was a challenge. That’s what I love,” Knox says. “There are millions and millions of faces on this planet and every single one of them is different!”

From Knox’s garage studio, he recently completed a portrait of Washington, D.C., District Judge John Penn. In preparing for the portrait, Knox looked over old family photos of Penn and delved into the history of the man.

“He talked with us and read about me,” Penn says. “That came out in the portrait. There is a difference between a picture and a portrait. A picture is just an individual. A portrait tries to capture the spirit of the person. Simmie accomplished that.”

For Knox, it’s also a feeling of accomplishment. “I know shadows and half tones, light and paint. I can say these things now with confidence. I am an artist,” Knox says. “From sharecropping and being hungry, no shoes in the winter and one pair of overalls to last all year, to where I am today. Even with all the ills of our country, I know that this could only happen in America.”