‘Tremendously Humbling’: Katie Runde On Painting Alexander Twilight For The Statehouse

Of all the portraits in the Vermont Statehouse, none of them are colored people, but that will soon change. A portrait of Alexander Twilight is expected to appear in the halls of the Statehouse next year.

Twilight is believed to be both the first African American college graduate and the first African American legislature in the United States. He graduated from Middlebury College in 1823 and served in the Vermont Legislature in 1836.

The Middlebury-based artist Katie Runde was chosen to paint his portrait. She was selected from a group of 18 artists to do this work.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke to artist Katie Runde about her upcoming portrait of Alexander Twilight. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

Henry Epp: So first, why did you want to be considered to take this portrait?

Katie Runde: It seemed like a good direction for the statehouse. And portraiture has always been my favorite segment of painting. It seemed like a natural choice.

I thought it was probably the best job for a color artist. So I assumed it would go there, but forgot about the unfortunate homogeneity of Vermont’s population.

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Given that, I mean, as a white artist, how do you think about approaching this piece?

Fortunately there were a lot of resources and I had a lot of help. And I think that’s the most important thing for a white artist: to include the voices of colored people in planning the portrait.

And one of the most helpful people was Professor Emeritus Bill Hart in Middlebury, a Twilight expert. The friends of Vermont State House in general who commissioned the portrait helped themselves remarkably, as did Bob Hunt of the Old Stone House Museum.

It’s a sensitive portrait. It’s an important portrait. There’s a lot of weight on it. The more heads we have together, the more awesome, respectful and accurate the representation becomes.

What is your starting point to start such work?

First things first, we talked a lot, which is actually very helpful, just to get a feel for what people want to see in the portrait, but also to concretize Twilight itself.

His students would say he had a great sense of humor. You’d never know if you looked at this daguerreotype – it looks very grumpy like most people do with daguerreotypes.

Every detail I find to flesh out his character gives me a better sense of how to frame him in the portrait and the aspects I need to make sure I get ahead. You know, he was a minister. So how do we portray the spiritual depth in a portrait?

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So the next step is to make sketches and send the sketches to the friends [of the Vermont State House]and to the people at the Old Stone House and to Professor Hart.

And after that I do a color sketch, which I normally wouldn’t do. I’m pretty impatient and like to get straight to the main portrait, but I think for something of this magnitude and importance I really want to have a clear sense of what the big, life-size picture will look like.

Well, as I mentioned in the intro and as VPR reported last year, there are currently no portraits of colored people in the Statehouse. This would be the first. How does this affect your approach or thinking about this piece?

It’s incredibly humble. I feel the weight of this piece. It feels very important. I think that makes me more … just more dependent on working with a group to get it right.

It will also mean a more patient process for me, probably a longer process, and really a process with a lot more introspection just to bring as much awe and care as possible.

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Especially with portraits, the most important part of a portrait is whether or not you get the spark of the human there. And to be honest, it’s not something that I’m in control of or that anyone is in control of. It’s like playing with your soul when you play music. it is there or not.

But I have the feeling that I am developing a feeling for the individual. Maintaining care helps. So that will be part of the process.

Do you have any questions, comments or tips? Drop us a line or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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