Arlington Heights artist tells how he painted Quinn -- and his stuff
Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wanted his official portrait to include far more than his smiling image, wearing his lucky purple-and-navy striped tie.
He gave Arlington Heights artist William Chambers 44 different items to include in the portrait -- among them, a snapshot of his parents on their wedding day, a photo of his swearing-in to replace impeached and removed Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a family Bible, and a cup with a picture of the Stan Musial Bridge near St. Louis.
Including personal objects is a technique of Chambers', who has completed portraits of director Steven Spielberg, President Bill Clinton, and former governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar.
But 44 items was unusual.
"I did tell him, 'Don't forget, the portrait is of you. These are all supporting casts,'" Chambers said.
Chambers didn't want the mementos to distract from the main focus of the portrait, the 41st governor. In the end, he resorted to buying a bookshelf from Wal-Mart to stage the items in, portraying Quinn as if he was standing before an office display of his favorite things.
Arranging the 44 items -- many of which Chambers still has in his office -- was one thing. Rearranging them was another.
Over multiple lunches at the Kerryman, a Chicago Irish pub where Quinn keeps a regular table, the two went over details of the portrait as Quinn requested more and more items be added.
"Clients know that they do have the opportunity to add or subtract," Chambers said. "And he was always adding things. At the last minute, he was adding his clipboard. So then I rearranged two books to fit that in there."
The clipboard, Quinn said, was a nod to his days as a community organizer. He noted it "can be used as a crowbar by people who need leverage against public servants who have lost their way."
Nearly two years ago, Chambers said, Quinn and his longtime girlfriend Monica Walker traveled to Arlington Heights and rang the bell of Chambers' home, situated in a quiet cul-de-sac off Algonquin Road. It's the home where Chambers and his late wife, Grace, raised their four children, and where one son and several grandchildren are still living as they look for a new home.
The modest colonial looks like many others from the outside, but a few steps inside the foyer reveal many of Chambers' award-winning pieces, including one of his son Patrick, now a special-education teacher at York High School in Elmhurst. The work won the International Portrait Society of America's International Portrait Competition's People's Choice Award in 1999.
After having Quinn sit for a photo shoot -- Chambers typically takes more than 100 shots of a subject in order to capture the most natural poses -- the artist set to work. He first sketched a close-up of Quinn's face, as well as a smaller rendering of the official portrait, before presenting it to Quinn.
"I get an idea of exactly what they're looking for. Then I'm not guessing," Chambers said.
Key to the portrait was a family Bible that Quinn is seen holding in his right hand.
"I asked Monica what the length of the spine of the Bible was. It turned out to be 5¾ inches," Chambers said. "Once I knew that, everything else could be worked out."
Unbeknown to him, Chambers said, Quinn was planning to use the 44 background items in an interactive capacity at www.governorquinnportrait.org, where visitors can click on an item and learn about the hallmarks of the governor's time in office. The portrait, paid for with private funds and donations, is thought to have cost at least $15,000, though Quinn and Chambers have not revealed the price.
Chambers also recalled last-minute changes with Republican former Gov. Jim Edgar's portrait.
Edgar and his wife, Brenda, decided to change out what Chambers calls a "simple, Venetian painting" in the background with a more complicated one depicting a Lincoln-Douglas debate with about 50 people in it.
Just before the governor's portrait was finished, Chambers said, the Edgars asked that two of the children in the background painting be made to look like their grandchildren.
"My experience, professionally, is that the client is paying for this, and I want them to be happy. But I always try to steer it in such a way that it all works compositionally," he said.
Before his career as a portrait painter, Chambers was a successful illustrator and often exhibited in the prestigious Annual of the New York Society of Illustrators.
He spent time training with other portrait artists and went to Northeastern University to earn his teaching certificate, should he ever need a backup career.
Quinn's portrait was finished just four weeks ago, Chambers said. The unveiling date of May 8 was set after two previous dates were scratched.
Chambers traveled to Springfield dressed in his usual work attire -- a flannel shirt and jeans -- to make sure the portrait was set up correctly. He changed into dress clothes in Secretary of State Jesse White's office.
When the ceremony started, Chambers said, "I didn't know where I was supposed to be, so I just stayed by Jesse (White)'s office. Then the governor called me up, and his son David and I unveiled it. It's not like I mind my name being mentioned, but I don't necessarily have to be up there," he said. "Some people are gifted, they like being in the limelight. I don't."