By Kevin S. Giles
In the world of artists, a portrait of a real or imagined person begins in a distant creative place none of us see, long before paint goes to canvas.
It was in that mind’s eye where Sharon Sprung found Jeannette Rankin – two women much alike but generations apart. Sharon’s depiction of Rankin, on her first day as the nation’s first woman in Congress, took six months to complete. The commissioned work hangs in the U.S. House of Representatives. And then she said this:
“It was a historical portrait,” Sharon said. “It speaks of her convictions and sense that she was doing the right thing, for her, and for representing other people.”
Sharon is an artist and teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y. She’s completed more paintings and drawings in 40 years than she cares to estimate. The Rankin painting, commissioned in 2004, portrays the new congresswoman much as she looked that first day in Congress in 1917.
Sharon’s painting appears someplace else, too. It’s the cover of my new biography of Jeannette Rankin, One Woman Against War. Sharon’s painting and my writing share a similar vision of Rankin as a pioneer in politics, confident and yet somewhat wary of entering into a lawmaking world dominated by men.
Her painting (accompanying this story), shows Rankin in the hallway outside the U.S. House chambers, clutching a newspaper and gazing earnestly into the eyes of the viewer. That day began with great hope for American women who wanted to vote. Rankin, elected from Montana at a time when a handful of western states approved woman suffrage in their legislatures, would carry the banner for suffrage into Congress. She would lead the effort for a federal amendment that would guarantee the vote for women in all states — more than 130 years after our nation’s founding.
It all happened 100 years ago this month.
To capture the realistic Jeannette Rankin, Sharon rented a period costume like what Rankin wore and found a model with a similar small and slender body. Sharon also researched the newspapers of the day. Her painting shows Rankin holding the morning edition of the Washington Post.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
When Sharon’s painting was unveiled in the U.S. House, she saw scant visual evidence of women and realized how little had changed since Rankin took her seat that historic day.
“It was striking in that you see only men on the walls,” Sharon said in a recent interview. “As a woman, it’s shocking to me.”
She can’t explain just how she decided how she found her portrait of Rankin, but describes it like this: “My intellect is really visual,” she said. “I can’t write about it, I can’t really talk about it, but I enter into the person and that’s what comes out. My gift is really being able to inhabit that place to get a sense of person. That’s what it’s about for me, is to have a visual record of people’s lives.”
Sharon said she didn’t look “with any clarity” at the Rankin painting until its unveiling. “I lived with that person for six months,” she said. Of her realist paintings of people, she said: “It’s my job to honor them and know them and give them everything I have.”
Much of Sharon’s other work shows the human form, particularly nude women. “Obviously, the female body is beautiful,” she said. “It speaks of my feelings.”
She’s distressed at seeing men painting nude women: “So many of them are about sexuality rather than sensuality.”
Like any artist, though, Sharon extends her creativity to a wide range of works, including corporate portraits and the form known as still life. She was awarded the commission to paint Jeannette Rankin after entering a competition.
Now her Rankin portrait goes to anyone who buys my book. Unlike most other Rankin biographies with formal black and white photographs on the cover, Sharon’s color depiction on One Woman Against War suggests vibrancy and anticipation. It shows a woman primed for action in a most unlikely setting for the times. Her eyes drill into us. We see some trepidation and humility and a yearning that we take her seriously. We stare back, seeking to know what she’s thinking. We know she already carries a great burden as the sole representative of an entire nation of women, many of whom still can’t vote. Her expression suggests she wants to tell us something, to help us believe and understand.
“To me her legacy is kindness and generosity, insight into women and children, and bravery of a woman who broke boundaries,” Sharon said. “She sacrificed her life to it.”
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)