Katie Runde: Painting Alexander Twilight
These remarks by Katie Runde, a realist oil painter based in Bristol, came as her portrait of Alexander Twilight was unveiled May 5 at the Vermont Statehouse. His paintings are in the Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury. She is also a wood player and a candidate for the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont.
To say it was an honor to have been chosen to paint this portrait of all portraits would of course be an understatement.
Now, there are many more people to thank than I have time to list now, but I have to start with David Schutz and National Life for making this possible in the first place – and the Friends of the Statehouse, who have not only been helpful every step of the way, but also…friends.
Thanks also to the portrait committee. I never thought I would say this, but this committee was a pure joy to work with, and this painting wouldn’t be what it is without them. They kept me up to date with historical details and also helped contribute valuable insights that we later incorporated into the planning process. This painting was truly a group effort.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this time to thank the home front – my parents who didn’t flinch when I decided to be an artist and my husband, James, who didn’t flinch when he learned that I was one.
I also have to give special thanks to Bill Hart for his help at every stage of this project. He not only helped introduce me to Twilight from a historical perspective, but also the perfect role models I needed to help bring Twilight to life, including, at one point, himself. Thanks to Bob, Molly and Carmen from the Old Stone House Museum, who helped me get a sense of Twilight and its world.
There was no way to begin this portrait – or design it, really – without first listening. I’m a white woman, for one thing. How can I hope to understand the experience of being biracial in America without listening to those who are?
Then there was the task of getting a sense of Twilight itself, of getting a sense of it, not just finding out more about it – both from historians and from the words of its students and its sermons, which still exist today.
The list of logistical hurdles to overcome to create this portrait is long:
- We have a daguerreotype of Twilight. He’s small, striped, black and white, and he doesn’t show much of a figure. I needed three different models for skin tone, body type, and Twilight skin tone.
- Then I had to track down 1850s menswear during a pandemic – not a hot commodity – and travel to Brownington to get an idea of how to incorporate as many of its key features as possible into one painting. .
- One of the big things, which I worked on a lot with the committee, was figuring out how to fit a lifetime, not to mention everything we have to celebrate about Twilight, into one image.
You’ll notice some key elements of the portrait, including Athenian Hall, the four-story granite dormitory he helped design and build himself. We have his students: notice the girls. Twilight ran a coeducational high school in the 1830s. The other student runs up to him to show how much Twilight was loved by his students.
The committee and I had a lot of conversations about how to integrate the second Statehouse and the landscape of Brownington into one place, so he holds a daguerreotype of the Statehouse in which he served.
He also holds William Paley’s “Natural Theology” and a fossil to represent the grounding of his theology in nature. You may also notice that to the right of the sky, a storm system lurks; we have the intersection between darkness on one side and light on the other, and this threshold – twilight – in between.
Last but not least, I had to take a tiny, gritty, austere daguerreotype and discern from there what Twilight’s prankster smile must have looked like.
This complicit smile, you see, is fundamental.
By commissioning this portrait, we not only celebrate Twilight as a great Vermonter of color – this is crucial – but the ramifications of Twilight’s introduction into the People’s House are even greater. After all, a state portrait pays homage to Vermonters of power and prestige.
What other images of power do we see in the Statehouse? We cannot ignore that the overwhelming majority are male, white and of considerable privilege, not to mention a significant military presence. You’ll notice Twilight smiling across the hall at Vermont’s Spanish-American war hero Admiral Dewey astride his battleship with its guns on fire.
You see, Twilight brings with it into the House of the People a radically different kind of power. He is not only a person of color, but also an educator and a pastor – a leader who is dedicated solely to uplifting others to live their full potential. This is not leadership by domination; it is leadership through service and relationship.
Think for a moment about the motto of our state of Vermont: Liberty and Unity. Today, we’ve taken one more step to make that happen.
After all, there can be no unity without diversity – the diversity of races, creeds, gender identities, sexual orientations, the variety that makes humanity so vibrant.
Nor can there be unity where one group has power at the expense of another. You’ve probably noticed that the list of people in this country routinely dehumanized by written and unwritten laws is growing: people of color, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQIA+ people, those trapped in the cycle of poverty, our prisoners, and now, as we have recently learned from the leak in our own Supreme Court, everyone with a womb.
Yet there can be no unity when a Vermonter is unattended, unseen, uninvited or unheard. And where there is no unity, there is no freedom.
Yet this portrait gives me hope that we are in fact getting closer to our ideals. May it be the first of many portraits of great colored Vermonters to come. May he be one of many portraits of true servant leaders who will work tirelessly to make our motto a reality.
In the words of Calvin Coolidge: If the spirit of liberty should fade away in other parts of the Union, and the support of our institutions languished, all could be replenished from the generous reserve held by the inhabitants. of this brave little state of Vermont.
May we in Vermont strive to be a beacon in these pivotal times.
Today we took a big step in that direction. May we not delay taking another, and another, until we can finally free ourselves to run.
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