As then-Gov. Gary Locke's staff was weighing which artist to hire to paint his official portrait, he was on hand at Safeco Field for the unveiling of the retirement portrait of Seattle Mariner great Edgar Martinez in the fall of 2004. After Mariner CEO Howard Lincoln unveiled the portrait on the field before 40,000 appreciative fans, Locke contacted his staff and basically said "I want that artist."
The artist who painted Edgar was Michele Rushworth and Locke, whose eight-year tenure as governor was nearing conclusion, thus became the first public commission for the Sammamish, WA, artist. It was a noteworthy step for a woman who, with little formal training in that medium, had decided a few years earlier to make portrait painting her career.
The portrait of Locke, completed several months later, opened important and extensive new doors for Rushworth with governors in other states, as well as high-ranking officials, contracting with her to do their portraits.
It was in the late 1990s that Rushworth, with two toddlers she and husband, Tim Jones, had adopted from China a couple of years earlier, decided to give up her career as an office-products sales executive and turn to portrait painting fulltime.
When I asked her about formal training, she admitted that her art-college schooling some 20 years earlier was "avant garde video production, performance art and scrap metal welding. Not much drawing or painting at all."
"I've taken a few week-long workshops since then, but that was about it," she added.
It was really more of a "eureka moment" for Rushworth, who recalls having done portraits "rather informally" in high school and college, as she thought about what line of work to go into after the kids started full time in school.
She says she found a website she describes as "like a portal site for portrait artists. I remember thinking, I could do this, and saying out loud, 'this is it!'"
From the late '90s until the breakthrough with the Martinez portrait, much of what she did was "dozens of private family portraits, mostly children," including daughters Rachel and Emily.
How competitive is her business?
Well, it's not like Michelango or Renior lounging about waiting for a summons from the Pope or the monarch. Rather there's an entrepreneurism and business savvy that come into play to be successful, and she says her sales years "were actually a big help in knowing how to run a business and work in a professional way with people in all sorts of fields."
"The business of doing portraits is very competitive," she told me. "There are probably 50 to 100 artists in the United States who do what I do and we all know each other."
As to how decisions are made on who to hire to do a portrait, she says "whenever someone needs a portrait done they may have a favorite artist in mind or they may look at dozens of portfolios. Quite often they'll have seen a portrait they liked and want to work with that same artist."
So it was with the charge to do portraits of two Nevada governors after the Nevada Arts Council saw the Locke portrait.
And the Nevada commission led to an unusual assignment to do several Wyoming governors after that state's legislature decided to "fill in the blanks" of 12 former governors who had never had portraits painted, and hired three artists to do the work.
"Some were recent governors and some were from a hundred years ago," says Rushworth, who actually did five of the 12. "For the posthumous ones I worked with archive photos, history books, family records, etc. In cases where the former governors were still living I went to meet them."
Rushworth recently completed official portraits of two high-ranking military officers in Washington D.C: retired Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen, and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz at the Pentagon.
Now she is engaged in a couple of special assignments, one is to do Locke's successor, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, whom Rushworth describes as "delightful to work with," for a portrait that will be completed near year-end as Gregoire's eight years as governor come to a close. Gregoire's portrait will then hang next to Locke's in the gallery of paintings of the former state chief executives.
Then there is the second portrait of Locke, contracted for by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which Locke headed before becoming ambassador to China. That portrait will be unveiled in the fall, she expects.
Working with the man who is now ambassador to China on the portrait may serve as reminder for Rushworth of the memories of the country to which she and Tim, at the time vice president of sales for Puget Sound Business Journal, twice traveled to adopt their daughters.
She's fond of recalling how the portrait of Martinez that really opened the door to her success could have ended in amusement rather than applause from the thousands of fans. As she put the final finishing touches on the portrait, showing Martinez at home plate in his classic batter's stance, she recalls thinking that she was finished. Then she realized that she had left out home plate from the portrait. "I quickly fixed the oversight."