KIND OF A PAINTING QUESTION, BUT WAS THERE A CHANGE IN THE MATERIALS THAT YOU USED? Not really. For many years I was a draughtsman, a printmaker, and then I painted with acrylic on all kinds of materials, but more and more on wooden panels. I love the feeling of painting on wood, so these are acrylic on wood. I'd never painted a portrait before, so I had to teach myself how to do that. And then I developed a way of doing it that really involves a lot of finger-painting. I'm putting the paint on with a brush but then fitting it, shaping it, molding it, creating transparencies by the way I rub it and getting the kind of look I want. It's taught me a lot about painting, that's for sure.
WHAT DO YOU USE, IF ANYTHING, FOR MODELS? I started with all these 19th-century figures and would go to libraries and find little black-and-white pictures of people like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. As I moved more and more toward contemporary figures I arranged to spend some time with each person that I paint. I think the reason why this show has kept current and keeps traveling is because I do take a lot of time to make real paintings. If I just had a big board and wrote down the quotes of these people and drew little cartoons, nobody would care. Political art is so often just dismissed anyway, but when it aspires to something real . . . it goes to another level. The style is mine, but I'm not trying to make them about me. They're about the people themselves.
WHICH MUST BE TRICKY GIVEN HOW, AS YOU SAID, THE WORK IS DIDACTIC. Well, I'm often the presenter. I get away with incredible things. Many of the quotes that I put on the paintings are very tough, and very challenging to a lot of people. If I were saying these things, I don't think I'd be invited to schools.
IT'S ALSO INTERESTING THAT THERE ARE FEWER HOUSEHOLD NAMES AS YOU GO DEEPER IN THE SERIES. Yeah, that's interesting to me because I would say, maybe even two thirds of people at this point are people that when I started this nine years ago I'd never heard of. So I've been on this huge learning curve. A lot of these people certainly should be better known, in my estimation.
DO YOU EVER PAINT IN THE OLD WAY ANYMORE? A little bit. I had two shows this summer that were kind of surrealist. A lot of my painting also has a comic edge to it. It's something that doesn't happen in the portraits, so it was fun to do that again.
HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED ANY OPPOSITION? AND HOW'D THAT GO? Ha ha, lots. If I didn't, I'd feel like I weren't striking hard enough. When I first came out, the famous Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz did a review of the book of the first 50 portraits. He said that these portraits would "give a smile to Old Joe Stalin" and that they were the equivalent of "literary child abuse."
A lot of people I've painted are lightning rods for all kinds of criticism. It's good, in a sense, because I'm touching nerves and they're nerves that I think need to be touched.