University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 3/1996
Portrait of an Artist

     Simmie Knox's career as a professional portrait artist really
began in fourth grade on an Alabama playing field when he was hit
in the face with a baseball.
     Knox, Delaware '67, was a standout ballplayer. He would have
stood out even more if one of his playmates hadn't been Hank
Aaron, later to become major league's all-time home run hitter.
     In those days during the early 1940s, they practiced with
bottle tops and broom handles. "When you've played with bottle
caps, baseballs are like basketballs," remembers Knox. "It was a
     Except for the day the ball cracked him in the eye. A doctor
said Knox needed some kind of steady activity to train his vision
and heal the damage, so the nuns at Heart of Mary grade school in
Mobile pointed him toward drawing. Knox started with the Stations
of the Cross, impressed the
nuns and, before long, became the "go-to" guy for artwork.
     There was just one problem. Black students in the deep South
weren't supposed to be interested in art, let alone be allowed to
take art classes. Therefore, there was no formal instruction for
Knox. Instead, the nuns arranged for impromptu, Saturday morning
drawing sessions with the postal carrier. Knox has been drawing
and painting ever since.
     Today, he makes as much as $60,000 for a portrait, with
commissions averaging $10,000 to $15,000. He's one of two or
three African-American artists in the Washington, D.C., area who
make a living exclusively from painting, he says. And, his
patrons range from Muhammad Ali to Bill Cosby, from former New
York City Mayor David Dinkins to the late U.S. Supreme Court
Justice Thurgood Marshall.
     Marshall, one of the most well-known figures in the history
of civil rights in America, became in 1967 the first African-
American Supreme Court Justice.
     When selected to paint Marshall's official portrait, Knox
produced a startlingly vital likeness, now on display in the U.S.
Supreme Court Building. He also made it a study of the man whose
strength helped reshape a nation, made it the kind of place where
black kids can be enrolled in art classes.
     "He liked the painting, kept it behind his desk. He joked
that he always wanted to be known as a 'hanging judge,'" Knox
     A father of three, Knox says he's proud that he's managed to
develop his art into a successful and secure business. "It's a
tough way to make a living," he says. "The only way I've managed
is by working hard. There's no such thing as an off day, not in
the last 15 years."
     His studio location helps, too, Knox says. "D.C. and
portraiture seem to go together."
     "You never know where the next commission is coming from,"
admits Knox, "but there's just something good about being able to
pull it off."
     Before devoting full time to his art in 1981, Knox taught
part time in high schools and colleges. He was an administrator
and a curator. He studied abstract art and then rejected it, in
favor of his inborn facility for representational art. Forbidden
in grade school, discouraged later, that facility had been
embraced in perhaps only one place-in Newark, Del., where Knox
studied to become a high-school teacher.
     "It didn't really come together till I got to the University
of Delaware," says Knox, who particularly recalls the teaching of
art faculty members, Charles Rowe and Byron Shurtleff. At
Delaware, Knox also studied biology, an interest reflected in his
anatomically correct figures and his lingering flirtation with
floral watercolors.
     Mostly oil-on-linen, Knox's portraits are certainly
lifelike, but they're more than that. His colors shine. His
compositions make statements, declare moods. "It's the touch of
the human hand," explains the artist. "Sometimes, people say I
paint like a photograph, and I say 'Well, maybe I haven't
succeeded yet,' because the photograph is limited to the
     If it's the touch of the human hand that distinguishes
Knox's realism, his depictions of human hands are worth
inspection in and of themselves. As you might expect, they're
unusually true to life, a skill that the perfectionist Knox says
he honed at UD, with the aid of a friend who would come to his
dorm every night and "sit" while Knox went through his "practice,
practice, practice, practice." Knox still has the sketches.
     And, the hands he creates also are so expressive. One of his
favorite early works depicts African-American farm laborers in a
blazing Southern landscape, their hands gnarled-the physical
epitome of labor. More recent is a montage of himself and his
kids, his theme being the bond between fathers and their
children, as opposed to the more conventional maternal union.
Binding his composition together is a rope of interlocking hands.
     You wonder what he'll do with the mighty hands of Hank
Aaron, his current subject for a montage Knox is assembling from
photographs collected over the years. "For a man to have that
much conviction," muses Knox, "to go out and play baseball when,
in those days, to cut school and play baseball meant the
principal would whip you, your father would whip you, your mother
would whip you."
     His sentence trails away, but his admiration is clear-an
admiration that obviously stems from more than personal
acquaintance. It's an admiration for a fierce and total
commitment, for a determination to have the skills of life at the
center of life, and, for want of a better phrase, "to pull it
                            -Steven O'Connor, Delaware '95PhD