Portraying dignity

Portrait of Gerald Gibson unveiled at Maryville College

The presidential portrait of Dr. Gerald Gibson was unveiled on April 23 in a special ceremony, which included Dr. Gibson, left, and artist Carl Gombert, right.

The presidential portrait of Dr. Gerald Gibson was unveiled on April 23 in a special ceremony, which included Dr. Gibson, left, and artist Carl Gombert, right.

Dr. Gerald W. Gibson and Dr. Carl Gombert both were introduced to the Maryville College community in 1993.

Gibson, as president; Gombert, as an art professor.

The two shared the spotlight again Friday, when Gibson’s presidential portrait - a painting Gombert was commissioned to create - was unveiled in a public ceremony held in the William Baxter Lee III Grand Foyer of the new Clayton Center for the Arts.

“When I saw Carl’s work back in 1993, I thought it was superb,” Gibson said prior to the unveiling. “My only worry about his doing my portrait was that his paintings tend to be brutally honest. I hope he has eased up a bit for this job!”

After Gibson announced last April that he would retire at the end of the 2009-2010 academic year, Holly Jackson-Ludlow, vice president for advancement and community relations, assembled a committee that would plan initiatives and events recognizing the retirement and the 10th president’s accomplishments. Among the committee’s first tasks: Commissioning an artist to paint a presidential portrait that would hang in the Lamar Memorial Library of Thaw Hall alongside the portraits of the college’s previous nine presidents.

She contacted Gombert, a portrait artist who has exhibited at more than 100 shows throughout the country and has works included in the collections of the Evansville Museum of Art, the Mobile Museum of Art, the Avampato Discovery Museum and the Knoxville Convention Center, among others. He studied drawing and painting at the University of Akron (Ohio) and Kent State University and earned his Ph.D. in interdisciplinary fine arts from Texas Tech University.

After determining that he would have the time to devote to such a project, the professor accepted the college’s offer.

At the unveiling, Gombert said he considered it a “high honor” to be chosen for the project and to have his work on permanent display at the college.

Gombert said he wanted the commission because, outside a drawing for a law firm, he’s never painted an institutional portrait before. Known widely for his award-winning, large-scale portraiture that often incorporates unnatural colors or mediums (such as rubber stamps) and illusionistic images, Gombert said he thought the process of creating a traditional portrait would enrich his studio teaching.

“I thought this would be a good exercise for me - to find out ‘Can I go through the kinds of things I teach every day?’” he said of the commission. “This (traditional portraiture) is what I was trained to do and not fundamentally different than my other portraits, although this presidential portrait is smaller and the viewpoint isn’t in so close.”

In preparation, Gombert revisited the Lamar Memorial Library inside Thaw Hall, where portraits of the college’s past nine presidents hang. He described the presidential portrait style on display in the library as “sedate,” and wanted to create something similar without it appearing lifeless.

Gombert sought Gibson’s opinions about pose and attire. The two agreed that a three-quarters length was appropriate, and both thought that Gibson should be standing and wearing his academic regalia in the portrait.

The project got underway last October, with Gombert taking nearly 120 photographs during two sittings with the president. In addition to capturing the president’s pose and expressions, Gombert took close-up reference shots of areas that would require more detail work - objects such as folded hands and a medallion that hangs from the president’s neck.

From there, he did sketches and water colors to show and get feedback from Jackson-Ludlow; Laura Case, Gibson’s executive assistant; and Rachel Gibson and Holly Gibson Yalove, the president’s wife and daughter. (The president opted not to view it prior to its unveiling.)

Gombert said all were pleased with the direction of the project and agreed that the pose and expression captured Gibson well.

“I wanted to convey dignity and intellect,” the artist said.

He spent approximately five months on the oil painting. It measures 30 inches wide and 40 inches tall, so the pose is nearly life size. Once on display in Thaw Hall, it will be comparable in size - some portraits are smaller, some are larger.

In the portrait, Gibson stands against a blue background, which complements his brilliant yellow academic hood. The subject also wears, as Gombert described, “a hint of a smile.”

The focus is all on the man.

“I’m less inclined to use props,” the artist explained, looking over the presidential portrait that is void of foreground objects (books, desks, chairs) that are present in many portraits. “I feel the regalia and medallion tell the story.”

Gombert said he feels good about finished portrait.

“It’s a good likeness,” he said.

Jackson-Ludlow agreed, wholeheartedly.

“The presidential portrait is a rich tradition at the college, and Dr. Carl Gombert has done an amazing job of capturing the essence of Dr. Gibson both as an individual and a leader,” she said.

The portrait does include a feature that is signature Gombert.

Without revealing exactly what it is, the artist said it was a subtle way to commemorate, visually, Gibson’s 17 years of service.

“I like mystery bonus prizes,” the artist said. “In my art, I like to include something for people who study and get up close.”

In addition to the unveiling, other presentations were made to the outgoing president during Friday’s ceremony. Among them, a mayoral proclamation declaring April 23 “Gerald W. Gibson Day” in the City of Maryville by Maryville Mayor and MC alumnus Tom Taylor, who also presented Gibson with a key to the city.

Nancy Smith Wright, who was the first African-American student to graduate from the college after reintegration, presented Gibson with a gift and thanked him for leadership marked by “character, dignity, compassion and a commitment to hard work.”

Five members of the Maryville College Board of Directors also spoke and praised Gibson’s leadership in the last 17 years.

Dr. Bryant Cureton, an alumnus and board member, said Gibson’s presidency had been, borrowing words of the college’s alma mater, “noble, grand and true.”

Alumnus and Chairman of the Board, Dr. Dan Ellis, announced that gifts to the Gerald W. Gibson Professional Development Fund, which was established last fall, now totaled $100,000. The fund will provide financial awards to individuals or groups to support projects that either enhance the college’s existing programs of distinction or contribute to the development of revolutionary programs or procedures that further enrich the college.

The presidential portrait will be on display in the William Baxter Lee III Grand Foyer of the Clayton Center, near the Blount Memorial Hospital Box Office, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., until July 1, when it will be moved to the Lamar Memorial Library inside Thaw Hall.

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