A Celebration of Willie B. Smith

by Rune Marie Nielsen, intro by Melonie McCoy
“My favorite pie is sweet potato, and I remember how I used to lick the bowl. You (CPP) all constantly remind me that I’m loved, that I’m forgiven, that I am somebody. This type of love is like giving me the sweet potato bowl to lick… this type of compassion is like a mother’s love.” Willie B. Smith III, who frequently exchanges heartfelt, insightful letters with volunteers, staff and especially volunteer Nora here at CPP, is scheduled to be executed on the 21st of this month.
CPP volunteer and artist, Rune Marie Nielsen, recently captivated us by finding Willie’s true light, kind heart and humble character within this beautiful portrait. As Rune explains, she wanted to capture Willie radiating the confidence and peace that CPP volunteers and staff see in him. CPP is working to help end the archaic practice of capital punishment which is rooted in slavery, class division and is historically an off-shoot of lynching.

Painting a portrait is like having a conversation with that person, but without using words. You get to know them better with each layer of paint. The ‘conversation’ begins with looking at their photo and finding emotions they express. Personality is shown in even the most simplest of portraits. Aspects such as how wide a person opens their mouth when they smile, if they are looking up at the viewer or away from the viewer, or even the arc of their eyebrows can convey a lot about them as a unique individual.

In Willie’s case, his posture and expression in the photo show a lot of sincerity, friendliness, and humility. He’s looking at the viewer in earnest, unafraid to show his genuine self. His smile is reserved a bit, showing perhaps a bit of shyness, but also kindness and caring, as though he wants to be friends with whomever he meets. In his photo, Willie’s eyes are partially closed and he’s stooped down a bit as he looks up at the viewer, which suggests a lot of humility but also some lack of confidence, which I see commonly in photos of people who care deeply about others at the expense of their own confidence. In the painting, I wanted to give Willie the confidence that we at CPP see in him. We are fully confident in his wonderful self, the Willie that deserves compassion and dignity. Therefore, in the painting his posture is more confident, being on a equal level with the viewer rather than hunched back, and his eyes are opened wider. This is the confident Willie we see in him, and we hope that he can see this confident Willie within himself.

I paint in acrylics, which require several layers for each painting. The first layers of a painting are always blurry because the paint is still thin and still acclimating to the canvas. These layers are like the soul that comes before the body. They are the steps of basic humanity, as something is appearing on canvas from darker tones to lighter ones (unlike some other forms of painting, acrylics are applied with darker tones first and lighter ones later). A person becomes more and more defined with each layer, revealing their uniqueness. When it is time to match a person’s features with their photo, there will always be some indicators that the painting is its own likeness. I emphasize expression in portraits, which means that sometimes I make eyes larger or lips less toned in order for the viewer to notice the expression first and foremost before noticing tiny details. Willie may not know me well, only having heard from me through a letter I sent him, but I feel like I have gotten to know Willie well through painting this portrait.

I could tell from Willie’s photo and the description of him that he was a person with so much light to give to this world. His light is something that radiates to others, so it felt natural to make the background of the painting a glowing yellow.

I wanted to paint Willie the way I do for every person I paint: as a dynamic and meaningful person of emotion who has so much to share with the world. I did not want to focus on the crimes he was tried for or his upcoming death sentence because those things do not define Willie. This portrait is a celebration of who he is, a person of love and life.

For more information about Rune and her work, please visit her website at runepainter.com

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Compassion Prison Project © 2021. All Rights Reserved. Photography by Vivianne Nacif.

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