Monterey artist Simon Bull unveils portraits of President Obama and Muhammad Ali during inaugural events
By SUSAN SCOTT WATTS
Special to The Herald
Posted: 02/06/2009 01:37:42 AM PST
Artist Simon Bull faced the challenge of combining two powerful, iconic, American figures, so he looked to Mt. Rushmore for inspiration.The British-born artist, who lives and works in Monterey, attended the inaugural festivities inWashington D.C., and he unveiled his recent portraits of both President Barrack Obama and boxing legend Muhammad Ali at the Bluegrass Ball on Jan 19. The portraits were commissioned by the Louisville, Ky.-based Ali Center, and given to President Obama as a gift.
“I wanted strong composition, so I used echoes of Mt. Rushmore, that showed human inspiration, and spoke to the relationship of the two men,” said Bull of the two 36-inch-by-36-inch acrylic portraits. “It’s easy just to mimic a photograph, but what interests me is speaking about the soul of the person I am painting.”
The Bluegrass Ball was a tribute to Muhammad and Lonnie Ali, Kentucky natives, and hosted by Kentucky’s top political figures, including the state’s governor Steve Breshear, and Kentucky’s United States senators and representatives. The crowd included such notables as CNN’s Larry King, former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, actress Ashley Judd, and The Temptations.
“You could hear this collective gasp from the crowd of 1,400 as the powerful portraits were revealed, while ‘The Greatest’ himself rose in amazement to take a closer look,” said Ira Shore, Bull’s agent from Camarillo and president of Fine Art Management Corp.
Just one month ago, president and CEO of the Ali Center, Greg Roberts, met with business associate Shore, and invited him to the inauguration. They discussed possible gifts to Ali for his upcoming 67th birthday and Shore suggested art. “At that point, I could only think of one person — and that person was Simon Bull,” said Shore.
Bull was provided photos of Obama taken at the Ali Center in the fall of 2008. Obama, a senator at the time, was in Louisville and called to arrange an unscheduled meeting with Ali. “Obama is a huge fan of Ali. Both Muhammad and his wife, Lonnie, were on the podium at the inauguration,” said Shore.
“I also found some of my own photos of Obama to work with,” Bull said. “I worked with my own photo of Ali for ‘Looking into the Future’ and other photographic material for the other photo. I finished about 10 days prior to the inauguration and wasn’t sure I was going to go until about a week in advance,” he said.
“We went to a private reception prior to the Bluegrass Ball to celebrate Ali’s 67th birthday on the 19th, then to the ball, where Ashley Judd and I did the unveiling, right before the meal,” Bull said.
Although Ali has Parkinsons, “he unseated himself to view the portrait and said, ‘Wow!’ and was exceedingly excited about the paintings,” said Shore.
“They were absolutely thrilled,” Bull said. “The Alis have works by Andy Warhol, Leroy Neiman and many others, but they liked my renderings of Muhammad because of the color and how I captured the emotion and character. When Muhammad and Lonnie saw the portraits, they were so excited, they decided to give both pieces to the president — they were initially planning on giving one and keeping one.”
“It’s the best work I’ve seen from Simon and it made both Muhammad and Lonnie Ali very happy,” said Shore.
Logistical plans for the paintings are under way. It is not yet determined whether the portraits will hang in the White House, or elsewhere in the presidential collection. Guests at the events made inquiries for both custom work by Bull and similar paintings of Ali and Obama as they crowded the area to have their photos taken with the portraits.
As Bull’s agent, Shore says: “we are respectful to the president and the Alis not to commercialize the portraits, but we hope to make related work available at some point in the future.”
“When I was painting ‘Looking to the Future,’ I was feeling the weight of their collective hopes and dreams, their struggles and aspirations, their hopes for the future,” said Bull. “In the piece titled ‘Legacy,’ I reflected the face of Obama looking out over the figures of Ali looking down on opponent Liston, representing Obama’s calm demeanor, which disguises the enormity of his spirit and the battles that lie before him,” said Bull.”It was truly awesome and I was very honored.”
In Bull’s 30-plus-year career, he has accumulated many accolades, including his first exhibit at age 18 in Hong Kong and later exhibits in Paris, New York, San Francisco, Bolognas and Harrods in London. His first inspiration came from a Danish artist. His work with vibrant color of close-up flowers, faces and objects with bold compositions are his signature look that is internationally acclaimed. He and his wife and family have lived in Monterey since 2003.