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June 22, 2006

UPT artist captures campus leaders with warmth

TITUSVILLE — The hallowed halls of almost any institution in academia are lined with the portraits of founders, administrators and other key figures in the school’s history.

Their stern faces peer down from wood-paneled walls, frozen in distinguished formal poses, distant and untouchable.

Not so with a series of portraits of former Pitt-Titusville presidents and distinguished service award winners being created by UPT adjunct faculty member Adah Ellis-Anderson.

A growing collection of lively pen-and-ink works is appearing in the Henne Auditorium lobby. The portraits combine the images of notable UPT leaders with a landscape background each showcasing a prominent campus structure. Brightly hued with colored pencil and pastel burnished into the surface for color, the portraits exude warmth and life. Each honoree is presented with the original work; a print is made for the Henne lobby.

“Years ago I decided to do paintings and drawings that celebrate life,” said Ellis-Anderson, taking inspiration from advice said to have been given to Georgia O’Keeffe: to fill the space of her paintings with beautiful or pleasant images.

Ellis-Anderson has taught at UPT for three years. She also has taught art at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, where she received a bachelor’s degree in drawing and painting, was certified to teach and earned an M.F.A. in painting and printmaking.

Ellis-Anderson was commissioned by former UPT president Michael A. Worman to create the first of the portraits to recognize campus advisory board members James J. Duratz and Richard W. Roeder, both of whom received the Distinguished Service Award in 2005 for their contributions to the University. Duratz’s portrait features an image of the ornate four-sided clock that stands in UPT’s centrally located Helene Barco Duratz Plaza, donated in memory of his late wife.

Roeder is portrayed in the foreground of a lush landscape that focuses on the campus bell, which sits on a stone pedestal near the plaza.

Ellis-Anderson created a third portrait, which was presented as a surprise for Worman when he retired last year.

Worman is posed in front of the pillar and wall in the McKinney Hall courtyard outside the president’s office with dogwood blossoms that were in bloom when Ellis-Anderson began the work. Prominent in the background is a decorative cement vase that tops the pillar. “It reminded me of a chalice the president of the University should hold high with dignity and honor,” she said.

In creating the design, Ellis-Anderson works from a number of photos, both of the person and of the landscape she is portraying. Although the locations depicted in each work are familiar, the drawings are not exact representations of the on-campus sites, but rather idealized versions, adjusted as necessary to produce an integrated, aesthetically pleasing image.

She works from five to eight photos for each of the landscapes, adjusting the perspective as necessary to depict the focal point of the background at its best.

“I twist and pull things when I need to make it fit and look like it belongs that way,” she explained.

In addition, she works hard to bring out the personality of her human subject. Again working from multiple photographs, she combines elements from a range of sources to produce the best image: the facial expression from one photo, the shirt and tie from another, the suit jacket from a third.

In addition, she gathers information about the person she is portraying. Of the three men she has drawn, Worman is the only one whom Ellis-Anderson has known personally. “I was hoping I presented him well,” she said earnestly, scrutinizing the portrait on the wall. “I hope I did an image he really would enjoy having because he initiated [the portrait project] and put confidence in me.”

For those she doesn’t know well, she relies on others’ descriptions to help get a feel for her subject.

Faith plays a role as well. “I say a prayer every time I’m starting something. It’s almost as though God is guiding my hand.” Prayer, she said, “allows the spirit to flow freely” and helps her guard against excessive pride because she views her work as not solely her own.

Her current project is a portrait of UPT’s first president Joe M. Ball, with Haskell Memorial Library as the scenic backdrop. The library is an appropriate companion for Ball: It was built during his tenure as campus president. Examining the partially completed work, currently only an outline drawing, Ellis-Anderson describes her plan for the finished portrait: It will feature pink roses with greens and the library in the background. Its windows will be dark, reflecting clouds.

“Last summer I saw those pink roses,” she said, recalling how she’d taken note of their color and beauty in front of the library. “I hope the lovely pink roses will portray how much people have said to me they just adore this man,” she explained.

Ellis-Anderson said she hopes to complete Ball’s portrait and perhaps another featuring one of UPT’s other two Distinguished Service Award winners before the end of summer.

But her progress has been tempered by a March 31 heart attack that slowed her down and forced her to take stock of the many projects she juggles.

In addition to accepting commissions, she teaches foundation drawing and foundation painting each year at UPT, teaches art to inmates at the women’s prison in nearby Cambridge Springs and is the mother of two. Plus, she dreams of writing and illustrating a children’s book and feels the urge to begin on other works of her own that she says “are pressing in on me.”

“The heart attack stopped me in my tracks. It’s making me say ‘Prioritize; do you really want to do all these things?’” she said, clearly impatient with the forced deceleration of her accustomed type-A pace. “I want to do everything.”

The amount of time spent on each portrait varies. “I drew Dr. Worman’s three times,” she said, explaining how she fine-tunes each element until she’s satisfied. “It has to be right for me first,” she said.

No date has been set for the presentation of Ball’s portrait, or for the remaining drawings depicting two other campus scenes and the campus’s other distinguished service honorees, Catherine McKinney and the late Ben McEnteer. The two also were campus advisory board members generous with their time, talent and financial support of the UPT campus.

“It’s certainly an honor to be able to draw them for the University,” Ellis-Anderson said of the series of portraits. “Artistically, it’s a challenge.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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