Laura Levine
Private Commissions and the Stories behind Them
posted: July 30, 2008
The Dubners...
One of the more enjoyable sidelines of this biz is doing private commissions. There's always a bit of self-imposed pressure behind them (what if it's not what they imagined? what if they don't like it?) but they're a genuine pleasure to do. In many ways they're the most gratifying type of project, in that the people who commission me are doing so out of their own pocket, so it's a great vote of confidence. So I thought I'd share a few recent pieces and the stories behind them.

This first  painting is a family portrait, secretly commissioned on the occasion of my friend Stephen Dubner's birthday by his lovely wife Ellen. I always like to include personal elements in the portraits, and she was terrific about sending me reference photos, which was a great help. They're all holding items that have special meaning to them (a popular conceit from early American folk art). He's holding Freakonomics, the book he co-authored; she's a photographer, so she's got her camera; their son has a football and their daughter is holding her favorite toy, a plush dreidel (how cute is that?). Lastly, I set the portrait in their favorite family spot in Central Park.

This second painting was commissioned by a photography collector who had recently purchased a number of prints from me. There was a moment in his past that he'd always wanted to commemorate and I was happy to oblige. Back in 1975 when he was a student at Oxford, he'd gone to see Tammy Wynette perform at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. This was shortly after Evel Knievel's failed attempt to jump his motorcycle over thirteen buses in Wembley Stadium, and Evel happened to be in the audience. Tammy proudly introduced him from the stage and proceed to list off every bone he'd broken in his body. It was a special moment indeed. Fortunately, my client was very patient with me - I took so long to complete this painting that Evel passed away in the interim.

Lastly, another birthday surprise. My dear friend Mark Whitaker was turning fifty and his wife Alexis Gelber and kids had a novel idea. Years ago I'd illustrated a series of covers of jazz albums for Verve Records, called the Essential Series. One of the pieces was the cover for a boxed set of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughan recordings. (In fact, I'd given that boxed set as a gift to Mark for an earlier birthday). We decided to work from that original painting, and Alexis, being a top-notch editor, suggested adding a couple more singers that Mark was a big fan of - in this case, we chose Nina Simone and Dinah Washington.

What I didn't realize was that I was expected to make a public presentation of the painting at his birthday dinner party!  Now, I'm not much of a public speaker (in fact, terrified) so it was quite daunting to get up there and make my little speech in front of the likes of Brian Williams, Fareed Zakaria, and Henry Louis Gates, but somehow the wine made it easier, and I got through it. (In fact, Gates came up to me afterwards and told me I'd "hit a home run.").
Tammy Wynette and Evel Knievel...
Jazz Ladies...
Marc July 30, 2008
Laura, the Dubner family portrait is terrific. I love the bird on the rock—nice touch.
Laura Levine July 30, 2008
Thanks Marc. That's a good ol' New York City pigeon (Columba livia) making an appearance.
Walter Vasconcelos July 31, 2008
Laura, I understand your concerns, but the works are great :-)
David Heatley July 31, 2008
I love the stories behind these pieces, which are all lovely. Thanks for getting vulnerable and opening up about the personal side of making these images.
Cathleen Toelke July 31, 2008
Wonderful pieces and stories, Laura. You shouldn't shy away from family portraits!
Andy Ward July 31, 2008
These are magical Laura and glowing with goodness. Great stories too which make make them even more precious.
Adam McCauley July 31, 2008
Nice post Laura! Lovely paintings.