Sammamish portrait artist paints powerful, political

November 23, 2010

By Christopher Huber

Sammamish artist Michele Rushworth recently completed a commissioned portrait of Melissa Essary, dean of the Campbell University Law School in Raleigh, N.C. By Christopher Huber

Upon entering Michele Rushworth’s humble second-story, in-home art studio near Discovery Elementary School, one might not gather that she paints portraits of the rich and famous.

You might gather that she has a steady flow of work to do by the empty golden frames dangling from large hooks on the wall. Or by the small sketch paintings lying on the table. But for Rushworth, business is booming. She has an up to two-year waiting list of well-to-do families, heads of state and pro athletes to have their lifelike portraits painted. She also paints landscapes and portraits of children.

Rushworth was recently chosen to paint outgoing Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons’ official portrait. The work, scheduled to be delivered by Dec. 17, will hang in the state’s capitol along with her portrait of former Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Rushworth will be paid $17,500 for the painting and the frame, and $2,500 for travel expenses. She was chosen after a monthslong selection process, involving 43 other artists from across the country, said Teresa Moiola, public information officer with the Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs.

“It was great. They could’ve chosen anyone,” Rushworth said.

After the announcement in mid-August, many Nevada residents complained about Gibbons not selecting a local artist to do the portrait, according to comments in the Las Vegas Sun. But the selection committee had a particular style in mind.

“Artists aren’t just limited to competitions in their own state,” Rushworth said.

Some artists weren’t available for the short deadline or wanted more money than the state offered, she said.

Rushworth has decades of experience — nearly 10 years of full-time portrait work — and uses materials and methods in line with the state’s stipulations.

“We need an accurate representation of the governor,” Moiola said. “Michele really demonstrated that.”

Rushworth said she has been painting in various capacities and styles since she was 3. She began painting commissioned work right out of high school in Canada in the mid-1970s.

Since 2001, she has been painting life-like portraits of people like Seattle Mariners great Edgar Martinez; former Washington Gov. Gary Locke; Admiral Thad Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard; Ford Motor Co.’s Donald Peterson; and John and Donna Luger, the founders of Eastside Catholic High School.

“I’ve always painted,” Rushworth said. “I’ve always loved art.”

She travels the country meeting with clients, taking hundreds of photos in the desired setting and getting to know their personalities through dinner outings and family time, she said.

One piece, which costs between $6,500 and $15,000, can take anywhere from six months to two years to complete, depending on how quickly her subjects make decisions. The actual painting takes about half of the total time involved and she can complete 10-15 works in a year, she said.

“We work on it together,” Rushworth said. “It’s kind of a collaborative effort throughout the entire thing.”

All of her work is done with imported paints and on Belgian linen canvas, she said. She values using the best materials, because a portrait of a family member, or prominent leader, needs to last.

“Portraits of people are really important,” she said. “When it’s a portrait of someone they know and love … it’s the first thing they’d take in a fire, I’ve been told,” she said. “It’s really a pleasure to give that to (clients) — people that are important to them.”

Rushworth said her favorite portrait, thus far, has been of Allen. Since painting his portrait — she unveiled it in May — she became Facebook friends with him.

“I have tremendous respect for the guy,” Rushworth said. “It was just great to meet him.”

Her most challenging project was a recent portrait of Bryant Butler Brooks, a Wyoming governor from the early 1900s. She researched the Edwardian era to find appropriate clothing and furniture to set a model in, she said. She also had to make do with just black-and-white photos of the man.

“That was probably the most challenging one I’ve done,” Rushworth said.

She has also painted a portrait of a firefighter killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which she unveiled on CBS’ “The Early Show” in 2007, she said.

“What I think struck them about her work is the human qualities that came through about each individual,” Moiola said about the selection panel. “She had this very human quality that came through in her painting. It lends a light, soft quality to the individual.”

Rushworth said she is among about 100 artists in the United States who do this kind of work. It makes for reasonable competition for commissions.

In the end, though, she said she enjoys meeting fascinating people and portraying their full spirit, not that seen in a photograph.

“I want to get to know them … capture their inner self and not just a photo,” Rushworth said. “Picasso said, ‘Painting is like keeping a diary,’ and it really is.”

Christopher Huber: 392-6434, ext. 242, or Comment at

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