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Every Picture Tells a Story...
Portraits by Kevin Geary

It’s always exciting to meet new people, and interviewing local artists gives me plenty of opportunity to do so. Artists, while typically eccentric and abstruse, seem to fall into two categories, serious or quite light hearted.

While both have found a place in my column, light hearted wins a place in my heart.

My mama tells me she makes a new friend every time she reads a book. Well, I make a new friend every time I write an article. It’s a great bonus.

On my initial phone call to Kevin Geary, I was greeted by a cheerful voice with a marked British accent. I knew I was in for a treat.

Geary is a vastly talented artist whose portraits beckoned my interview. They caught my eye on a counter in Walgreens and then again in a brochure I happened upon. When I saw one of his portraits hanging in Sommelier Winery in the Old Marketplace, I knew I had to give him a call. I was captivated by the life-like qualities of his work.

Geary works in graphite, a pure form of pencil lead, that never fades or discolors. While it can be erased, it is otherwise a completely permanent medium.

Since moving to Sedona, inspired by the majestic red rocks, Geary has begun working in a new medium of red rock clay, mixed with wax, doing portraits of children. This imparts a quality to the delicate features of young children similar to the red chalk drawings of the old masters. This medium also has a remarkable longevity.

His portrait drawings are done on a superb high-quality, handmade Italian paper, made by the oldest paper-making mill in continuous operation in Europe (since 1276). Made from cotton and linen rags by artisans in Italy, this paper was used by Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Many of their drawings are still in good condition today at more than 400 years old!

When asked why graphite, Geary replied, “Many people are uncomfortable with a large oil painting of themselves or their loved ones over the mantelpiece. A graphite portrait is less overbearing and grandiose, and more in keeping with the time in which we live, whilst still being a fine artistic representation of the subject or subjects. It is also easy to reproduce.”

I found Geary’s portraits utterly impressive. His ability to catch the likeness, character and personality of each person he draws is extraordinary. His pieces are deeply personal. I felt as though I was looking into the soul of each subject I viewed. Their mannerism, shyness, exuberance, inner and outer beauty are portrayed beautifully.

Every portrait intrigued me. There was one of Princess Michael of Kent that was especially interesting. She commissioned the portrait to be done for her father.

While you might expect her to look rather “stuffy” and pretentious, Geary captured quite  another look. Casually dressed in a turtleneck and seated comfortably, her eyes were soft and sumptuous. Her inner life revealed, she did not appear private or sealed. Behind the arched cheekbones and the lovely curl of lips, she was light and soft, almost watery.

Geary seems to know the body’s inner dynamics, what routines shape what muscles; what muscles align the bone structure, what alignments give the most strength.

I wondered what school, if there was one, that teaches such technique. As one might expect, however, this is an innate ability. One that all great artists share.

Geary did study anatomy for one year at the Royal Academy in England, and the science of color at the British Academy - hardly the sum total of his talent, but surely an accent to his phenomenal abilities.

As they say, the seed does not fall far from the tree. Geary’s mother and aunt both strongly influenced and encouraged him in the field of art. His aunt and grandfather were artists and his other grandfather an architect.

At the age of 13, Geary won a prestigious prize for his drawing from the Royal Drawing Society. Then at the “whopping age of 19,” he was hired as a political cartoonist for the Financial Times. When this didn’t work out, he decided to try employment at an advertising agency.

As his interviewer looked over Geary’s portfolio, he was quite taken with his talent. “Your work is incredible!” he proclaimed. Certain that Geary wouldn’t be fulfilled drawing illustrations, he suggested he get an exhibition together.

At 19, Geary wasn’t all that confident. But when he saw an ad in a local newspaper soliciting for artists to exhibit their work, he gave it a try.

Up to this point, Geary had a collection of portraits he had done on famous people. These were people he had chosen to draw, not by commission. One such person was Harold Wilson, the prime minister of England.

When Wilson saw the portrait, he liked it so much, he bought it. Soon after meeting, they became fast friends. So, when Wilson heard Geary was doing an exhibition, he offered to open the presentation.

It went very well and Geary sold several of his portraits. At this time he received his first commission, setting the tone for his future work. After making a personal portrait of the client, he liked it so well that he asked Geary to do his entire architectural firm. The 14 architects were displayed proudly at the establishment. Someone saw it, hired him for a family portrait and it snowballed from there.

Geary has never had to promote himself; each portrait he does seems to bring another. Just one look at any of his portraits and you needn’t ask why.

I questioned Geary on his process to try and better understand how he captures the essence of his subject. He does not draw from life, and oddly enough this is why his portraits look so real.

Anyone who has ever “sat” for a portrait can relate. Made to sit still in a pose is completely unnatural and therefore produces the same effect. Geary goes to the home of his clients and takes photographs of them. Here on their own territory, he is free to watch and study them. Within a short amount of time, he sees their personality and character. Typically a photo shoot will take about half-an-hour; then Geary will mix and match the photos, taking perfect pieces from each one to compose a portrait.

This is particularly helpful when Geary is doing a family portrait. It enables him to take photos of the members separately as well as interacting together. He then combines them artistically in the final piece. This is an advantage over a photo portrait since everyone will look their best.

This method has enabled Geary to do family portraits of people that live in separate states. He showed me an example of this with a father and his two sons. Although living in different areas, Geary masterfully joined them together - a beautiful composite of their individual and group energies.

Geary loves doing portraits of people all ages, but when pressed for a favorite, he had to say children.

“As adults, we all have so many complex layers of personality. We try desperately to conceal our true personalities for one reason or another. Children simply don’t have that. They are the way they are, and when I portray them as such, the parents are really happy. When they view a finished portrait, children always recognize themselves. Adults, especially women, want me to remove the wrinkles, or so-called imperfections. They don’t always see the beauty at hand.”

In all of the portraits I viewed, I noticed how perfectly natural everyone looks, at ease and very, very real. Geary’s innate ability to truly “see” his clients is phenomenal.

Often parents will tell their children to take their hands away from their face or to smile or act a certain way. Even so, Geary catches all their little personality traits with his camera and incorporates them into the portrait. Even when it is not what the parent expected, they are quite pleased with the results.

I especially loved the way Geary draws teeth. Everything about them is so real. When I mentioned this, he laughed and recalled a story of a dentist’s family he did a portrait of.

One of the children was missing prominent teeth. Feeling it would spoil the picture, they asked if he could draw the teeth in. Having become friends with these clients (a pattern with Geary), the dentist later told him the thing he admired most about the painting was those teeth. Apparently the child’s teeth grew in exactly as they were in the painting!

An internationally renowned artist, Geary has more than 50 exhibitions of his work in Europe and the United States. His work is in many major public collections including the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and many, many others.

Geary has been commissioned to draw portraits of some of the most famous religious, political, royal, diplomatic and musical figures in the world. These include Pope John Paul II, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, John Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Brymer, Patricia Queen as well as countless others. His work is also in the private collections of Golda Meir, Princess Michael of Kent, Count Basie, Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Ashgkenazy, to name a few.

One critic said of Geary’s work, “Kevin’s pictures go beyond the possibilities of photography in their realism, they beat the camera at its own game. One can imagine a camera taking one look at Kevin’s pictures and then going away to die of a broken lens.”

Geary, now happily living in Sedona with his lovely wife (and fantastic editor), Patricia, can be reached at 284-3396 for private commissions.

Do give him a call.

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