MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury artist Kate Gridley’s work can be found adorning the walls of some pretty prestigious places, including courthouses, major corporate offices, Middlebury College and some lavish estates.
She will soon be able to add the Vermont Statehouse to that list.
Gridley learned last month that she has been selected to paint the defining portrait of departing Gov. James Douglas — who happens to be a fellow Middlebury resident. She’ll spend the next seven months working diligently on the oil painting that will be part of the legacy the Republican will leave after eight years as the state’s top executive.
“It is an honor,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
Gridley, 54, has been painting professionally since 1978. Toiling contentedly out of the spotlight, whether it be in a remote field or in her small studio off South Street, Gridley has felt comfortable working within many genres of artwork, ranging from pastel drawings of children to the interior stenciling work that adorns the Middlebury Town Hall Theater.
She also is no stranger to portraits, having painted lifelike depictions of Middlebury College President Timothy Light, more than a few corporate CEOs and many others who have come to admire her work.
“I paint one or two big commissions per year,” Gridley said of her portrait work. “That’s how I make my bread and butter.”
With the recent economic downturn, Gridley had anticipated less bread and butter to put on her artistic table in 2010. With that in mind, she decided to try and drum up a little business for herself last year when Douglas confirmed he would not seek a fifth term as the state’s top executive.
She contacted state Curator David Schutz to ask how she could land the plum assignment of immortalizing the governor on canvas. Vermont, during its more-than-200-year history, has ritualistically marked the exit of its sitting governor with an artistic rendering. Past portraits have included lithographs and at least one marble bust, but most have taken the form of oil paintings, Schutz noted in a phone interview.
Douglas will be the 80th Vermont governor to be so honored and will take a spot alongside his predecessors on the Statehouse wall.
Gridley wanted to be the artist to put him there.
“I called David (Schutz) to ask what the process would be, because I wanted to throw my portfolio into the ring,” Gridley said.
Schutz invited her to do so. She submitted a CD containing several images of works she believed demonstrated her abilities as a portrait artist.
“I tried to show my range,” Gridley said. “I chose faces with a variety of expressions and backgrounds to show how they were really personally designed.”
Her work clearly made an impression, as Gridley made the list of four finalists. Douglas and his entourage took a closer look at Gridley and the three other candidates. Gridley received word around a month ago that she had been selected to paint the Douglas portrait.
The group of artists who expressed interest in landing the Douglas portrait assignment was the most talented that Schutz has seen in 25 years.
“It was an exceptionally wonderful group of artists,” Schutz said. “The fact that Kate prevailed is all the more impressive.”
As is the tradition, all of the funds for the painting are being raised privately by the Douglas family, friends and supporters.
Schutz stressed that Gridley’s residency in Middlebury had nothing to do with her being picked to do the portrait.
“(Douglas) didn’t know her at all,” Schutz said. “The fact that both (artist and subject) are both from Middlebury was totally unimportant in making the decision.”
That said, Schutz does recognize the advantages to their sharing the same zip code.
“Obviously, it’s now going to be a fairly convenient thing for her studio to be so close at hand,” Schutz said.
Indeed, Gridley has already mapped out a process by which she will create the Douglas painting. It is a process that will involve at least three sittings during which she hopes to learn more about the governor as a person.
“When I make a portrait of someone, the person who is sitting and I are constructing a ‘truth,’ and that truth is going to hang on the wall of, in this case, an institution … And it is going to be part of the fabric of that institution’s history,” Gridley said. “The decisions that we make, such as what the client is wearing, the context — are they inside, outside or with other people? — all of those decisions reflect something about the person who is being painted.”
One of the primary goals of the painting, Gridley said, will be to give future Statehouse visitors a hint of the governor’s legacy, character and personality.
“I have been hired for my eyes and my style, and so we are going to come up with something that works for me as an artist, but works for him in the context of this institutional setting,” Gridley said.
And Douglas remains somewhat of a blank canvas for Gridley, because even though they have resided in the same town for many years, their paths have not crossed frequently as neighbors.
“I’m not just looking at his politics; I’m wanting to know him as a human being,” she added. “That’s why I paint portraits. I want to sort of dig into the nature of the person.”
It’s not an easy task, Gridley noted, especially when the subject is someone as busy as the governor. For that reason, Gridley commissioned a photographer — the Addison Independent’s own Trent Campbell — to take a series of pictures of Douglas in order to minimize sittings.
Based on the photo shoot, which took place April 17, and the preliminary conversations with Douglas and his friends, family and associates, Gridley will develop a series of sketches, primarily of the head. This may lead to a preliminary design.
“When the drawings are done, which in this case is June 1 … I will review them with him and whomever else wants to check them, and we will make a decision on how we want to proceed,” Gridley.
It remains uncertain, at this time, whether Douglas will be depicted in an outdoors, office or other environment. Gridley is confident that the portrait will be vertical and at least four feet tall.
Once Douglas gives Gridley a clear sense of the portrait composition, she will start making what she calls an under-painting.
“I will wash-in the painting very loosely, with the exception of his head and hands” — elements she will have drawn in very carefully on the canvas.
“At that point, I will have stretched up the canvas, we will know the outer dimensions at that point, and we will even probably have an idea of where it’s going to hang,” Gridley said.
Once she is finished with the under-painting, by Aug. 1, she will need another round of approvals on the work. It will still be possible at that point for her to make changes in the painting, because the paint will be so thin.
“Once that stage is approved, then I start really painting it,” Gridley said, a point at which she’ll be ready for Douglas to come in for sittings.
“The sittings are really important,” Gridley said. “He’s not going to sit there like a rock. We are going to chat. That’s when the portrait becomes really a visual record of the time that he and I spend together.”
Gridley does not hesitate in describing the most challenging part of a portrait to paint.
“The mouth,” she said. “The mouth is the hardest part to get right, partly because people hold their emotions somewhere in their cheeks.”
For his part, Douglas welcomed the selection of Gridley to paint his portrait.
“I am so pleased to be working with Kate on this portrait and feel confident she will be able to capture not only my physical likeness, but also my commitment to public service and my deep and abiding love for our state and its people,” he said.
Plans call for the painting to be completed by Dec. 1. Since Gridley likes to spend an entire year on her portraits, and because of the high-profile nature of her current subject, Gridley is feeling a lot of pressure with the Douglas project.
“I’m already losing sleep,” she said.
It’s a portrait that won’t be truly completed when it is officially unveiled early next year. That’s because it will take the year for the paint to completely dry before the final varnish can be applied.
“A year later I will go up to the Statehouse and take (the painting) from the frame and varnish it,” Gridley said. “It will take a day. Then we will pop it back in and then it will really be ready for the walls of history.”
Gridley said she feels privileged to be associated with the gubernatorial portrait project. Her work will be viewed by future generations at one of the state’s most cherished venues. Gridley is also looking forward to sharing the Statehouse walls with some of the great past and present artists.
“It’s always fun for an artist when they’re hanging in good company,” Gridley said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.