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

A daguerrotype of Alexander Twilight
The Old Stone House Museum, courtesy
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Of all the portraits in the Vermont Statehouse, none are of people of color, but that will soon change. A portrait of Alexander Twilight will go up in the halls of the Statehouse likely next year.Twilight is believed to be both the first African American college graduate and first African American legislator in the U.S. He graduated from Middlebury College in 1823 and served in the Vermont Legislature in 1836.

Artist Katie Runde of Middlebury has been chosen to paint his portrait. She was chosen from a group of 18 artists to take on this work.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with artist Katie Runde about her forthcoming portrait of Alexander Twilight. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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

Katie Runde: It felt like such a good direction for the Statehouse to be taking. And portraiture has always been my favorite segment of painting. It seemed like a natural choice.

I was figuring it would probably be a job best for an artist of color. So I was assuming like that's where it would go, but I forgot about the unfortunate homogeneity of the Vermont population.

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

Fortunately, there have been a lot of resources and I've had a lot of help. And I feel like that's the most important thing as a white artist: to have the voices of people of color involved in the planning of the portrait.

And one of the most helpful people has been Professor Emeritus Bill Hart at Middlebury, who is a Twilight expert. The Friends of the Vermont State House in general, who have commissioned the portrait, have been remarkable help themselves, as has Bob Hunt at the Old Stone House Museum.

It's a sensitive portrait. It's an important portrait. There's a huge amount of weight on it. So the more heads together we have, I feel like the more reverential, respectful and accurate depiction will get.

What's your starting point to begin a work like this?

First things first, we've had a lot of talking, which is actually really helpful, just to get a sense of what folks want to see in the portrait, but also fleshing out Twilight himself.

His students would say he had a great sense of humor. You'd never know that from looking at that daguerreotype – he looks very dour, as most people do in daguerreotypes.

Every detail I find fleshing out his character gives me a better sense of how to frame him in the portrait and aspects that I need to make sure come forward. Like, you know, he was a minister. So how do we depict spiritual depth in a portrait?

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So the next step is going to be making sketches and sending the sketches along to the Friends [of the Vermont State House], and to the folks at Old Stone House and Professor Hart.

artist-katie_runde-evan-wilson-20210224.jpg
Credit Evan Wilson / Friends of the Vermont State House
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Friends of the Vermont State House
Middlebury artist Katie Runde was selected from among 18 candidates to paint Twilight's portrait for the State House.

And then after that, I'll do a color sketch, which is something I usually wouldn't do. I'm pretty impatient and like to get right to the main portrait, but I think for something of this magnitude and this importance, I really would want to have a clear sense going in of what the big life-size image will be.

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

It's tremendously humbling. I feel the weight of this piece. It feels very important. I think that makes me more … just more dependent on working together 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 trying to bring as much reverence and care to it as possible.

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Especially with portraiture, the most important part of any portrait is whether or not you get the spark of the human there. And to be honest, that's not something I have control over, or that anybody has control over. It's like playing with soul when you play music; it's there or it's not.

But I do feel like cultivating a sense of the individual, cultivating care does help that come out. So that will be part of the process.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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