Sammamish’s Michele Rushworth paints Gov. Chris Gregoire’s official portrait
February 9, 2013
By Warren Kagarise
The scene as a workman climbed atop a desk to hang the official portrait of Gov. Chris Gregoire in the Capitol seemed surreal to the outgoing executive.
“When we were about to hang it up, I said, ‘Well, I’m probably one of the few people that’s actually observed their own hanging,’” Gregoire recalled in a Feb. 4 interview.
New: Feb. 9, 3:16 p.m.
The portrait by Sammamish artist Michele Rushworth — a 44-inch by 30-inch canvas depicting Gregoire in a blue blazer — stands out among the men in dark suits in the other paintings.
Rushworth joined Gregoire and other state leaders in the Capitol’s marble-lined State Reception Room on Jan. 11 to unveil the piece, less than a week before Gregoire handed the reins to Gov. Jay Inslee.
Rushworth, a painter known for creating portraits of leaders in government, academia, business and sports, endeavored to set Gregoire apart from other canvases above the leather sofas in the governor’s office reception area.
“The real key to the success of a portrait is the planning that happens before you ever put a brush on the canvas,” Rushworth said in a Jan. 23 interview. “If you don’t have a good feeling for the subject, if you don’t have good reference materials, if you don’t have a good composition, nothing is going to work in the painting, no matter how good you are with the brush.”
The portrait cost $18,000 and the state used funds set aside for the transition between the Gregoire and Inslee administrations to pay for the painting.
The former governor left office Jan. 16 and set off on vacation after a grueling eight-year tenure. The itinerary included Disneyland, San Diego — including a stop at the landmark zoo — and then to Tucson, Ariz.
Using clothing, backdrop set tone
Rushworth also painted former Gov. Gary Locke’s official portrait and, throughout the Gregoire administration, Gregoire and staffers admired Rushworth’s handiwork each workday.
Early last year, as Gregoire’s eight-year tenure started to wane, “we started looking around for someone to do the portrait,” Fred Olson, Gregoire’s former deputy chief of staff, said in a Feb. 4 interview. Rushworth “actually was one of the first to come to our mind, because as we all walked by the Locke portrait every day, we all thought that she had done an incredible job.”
Then, as Olson and Gregoire discussed possible artists, Rushworth ranked atop the list.
“We wanted one that was able to capture a good likeness of the governor but also maintain the dignity of the office,” he said. “The other thing that was really important was someone that we could work well with.”
Olson and the Washington State Arts Commission’s executive director reached out to Rushworth. The interview led to a meeting between the artist and the governor.
“She’s a very warm person, really funny and great to get along with,” Rushworth said. “She’s also very no-nonsense and gets things done.”
Like the other official portraits beneath the Capitol dome, Rushworth and Gregoire set out to include symbolism to nod to accomplishments during Gregoire’s tenure as governor. But the early discussions focused on something more practical — what the governor should wear for the photo shoots needed before Rushworth could start to paint.
“We talked a lot about that,” Rushworth said. “Do we want something conservative in a black suit or a skirt? Then she said, ‘Well, that’s really not me. This is my look.’ I do a lot of research before I meet someone, and I had a pretty good idea of what she liked to wear as well.”
Rushworth decided to paint the governor in a trademark blazer in a bold color.
“We also wanted something a little more contemporary than some of the other portraits on the wall, because time marches on and we wanted something that reflected today,” Rushworth said. “We weren’t trying to make this look like a painting from the 19th century or anything. She wanted it to look modern and really capture who she is here and now.”
Gregoire donned a blue blazer for the photo shoots, but the photographs did not capture the exact hue. Rushworth needed to match the color, so Gregoire’s staff contacted the manufacturer and received a fabric sample for the artist.
The governor also conducted some reconnaissance to understand how Capitol visitors received other official portraits.
“I stood behind a door of the reception area to the governor’s office while tours were going on, and I listened to a fifth-grade class — and found them unbelievably critical,” she said.
Symbols reflect tenure, service
The artist and the governor fanned out across the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion next door to scout possible settings and shoot photos for the portrait before selecting a north-facing window in the governor’s office as a backdrop.
“In the case of Gov. Gregoire, that’s a combination of probably 20 different pictures in different parts of her office and looking out the window,” Rushworth said.
Some photographs captured a more expressive face; others offered the artist necessary details about hands.
“John Singer Sargent, the famous painter, always said that a portrait is a painting in which there is something wrong with the mouth,” Rushworth said. “I would say that the mouth is the most difficult just because it’s very expressive, and very subtle things can change the expression quite a lot.”
Once Rushworth completed a notebook-sized study painting for the governor to review, she set brush to canvas on the Gregoire portrait in July.
Rushworth said the easy rapport between the artist and the subject shaped the portrait.
“We got along great. We became buddies, I guess you would say. We had a terrific time. She was one of my favorite clients to work with. We really became friends during the process,” she said. “I enjoyed talking with her about politics in Washington, D.C., and about education.”
Gregoire, a Democrat, is the latest entry into a bipartisan group to receive portraits by Rushworth.
“I’ve painted Republicans and Democrats — we don’t really talk about politics,” Rushworth said. “Although I will often ask them their views of things, I don’t share my views necessarily.”
The symbolism she incorporated into the portrait references points through Gregoire’s time in public life.
Rushworth included 22 challenge coins, or medallions, from law enforcement, fire and military agencies behind the governor. The topmost coin is from the Washington State Patrol.
“I did that out of respect and admiration for the officers who had protected myself and my family for the last eight years,” Gregoire said.
The coins also symbolize Gregoire as the state’s 22nd governor. The detail is akin to the 21 nailheads Rushworth included in Locke’s portrait.
In the background is the state Temple of Justice — a reminder of Gregoire’s law career and tenure as the first woman elected to serve as state attorney general.
“We wanted to give the tour guides something to talk about when the fourth-graders come through,” Rushworth said.
The portrait reached the Capitol weeks before the ceremony to unveil and hang the canvas. Olson stored the painting in a locked area adjacent to the governor’s conference room after Gregoire and top aides peeked at the portrait.
“I didn’t tell anyone what the governor was wearing or what was in the background or any of that until the event,” Rushworth said.
Gregoire said the reaction from husband Mike and adult daughters Courtney and Michelle affirmed Rushworth’s talent.
“It’s hard to look at oneself and say, ‘Wow, that’s great,’ but I will tell you that Michele, I think, is just a master of capturing a person,” Gregoire said.