The Soul of the American Actor

INTERVIEWS with ARTISTS

BEN VEREEN

JEANINE TESORI

PSALMAYENE 24

SYLVIA MCNAIR

MICHAEL McELROY

DEIDRE KINAHAN

BOB ARI

PAUL TAZEWELL

PATRICIA ROZARIO

NANCY RHODES

MAIA DANZIGER

EARL “PEANUTT” MONTGOMERY

WILLIE RUFF

DENNIS D’AMICO

GRACE CACHOCHA

KAREN SAILLANT

JENNIFER HORNE

JEANIE THOMPSON

ROBERT PERRY

WAYNE SIDES

JAMIE LEE McMAHAN

SPOTLIGHT ON ARTISTS

Zana Marjanovic

Dr. Ashley William Joseph

M. Safeer

Kevin Kimani Kahuro

Ilire Vinca

Avra Sidiropoulou

Sujatha Balakrishnan

Mihaela Dragan

Farah Deen

Katy Lipson

Juan Maldonado

Odile Gakire Katese

Hartmut von Lieres

Dragan Jovičić

Sachin Gupta

Jill Navarre

“To grasp the full significance of life is the actor's duty, to interpret it is his problem, and to express it his dedication.”  
– Marlon Brando

“The theatre should be treated with respect. The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion.”
– Noel Coward

“Cultivate an ever continuous power of observation...see the sunlight and everything that is to be seen.”
– John Singer Sargent

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
– T.S. Eliot

“Don’t cast away a flower or even a tree leaf without entering into communion with it and penetrating into its mystery. Listen to the twittering of a bird, watch the thoughtfulness of each small fish in an aquarium; gaze as often as you can at the stars – all this will help in your struggle for spiritual concentration.” 
- Richard Bolaslavsky

 

 

“In everything, without doubt, truth has the advantage over imitation.”
- Cicero

 

 

 

“The actor must constantly remember that he is on the stage for the sake of the public.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

“How do we re-establish a culture of caring?  There are many things that we can and do. The arts can help. Becoming educated – but having a good education doesn’t necessarily mean that a person knows how to be a “caring” person. It’s time to re-define what “being human” means. What is it that makes us different from animals? Mainly, it’s when we accept the discipline of “being human.” When we genuinely care about each other.” 
- Rita Fredricks

 

“To flourish, society depends on a strong cultural heritage as well as innovation. The challenge is to breathe new life into the arts. Creativity is at the heart of every successful nation. It finds expression in great visual art, wonderful music, fabulous performances, stunning writing, gritty new productions and countless other media. Giving form to our innate human creativity is what defines us to ourselves and the world.
This is what the arts have always done. The lasting value and evidence of a civilization are its artistic output and the ingenuity that comes from applying creativity to the whole range of human endeavor. What is education if it doesn't teach our children to think creatively and innovatively? What use is a robust economy unless it is within an innovative country that can attract and stimulate the world? How can good governance exist without a population that is engaged, educated and able to form its own opinions?”  Excerpt from an essay, “Reviving a creative nation,”
 – by Cate Blanchett and Julianne Schultz, April 16, 2008, For the Creative Australia Stream at the 2020 Summit

“Simply think the words.”
— Goethe

“Action is the direct agent of the heart.”
— Delsarte

“The supreme goal of the theatre is truth, the ultimate truth of the soul.”
— Max Reinhardt

“Through the unity of reason and emotion, of spirituality and affection and sensation, the actor will discover his creative genius for the stage – the art of acting.”
— Erwin Piscator

“The artist-actor unveils his inner soul.”
— Eleonora Duse

“Living is a process. Acting is the act of laying oneself bare, of fearing off the mask of daily life, of exteriorizing oneself.  It is a serious and solemn act of revelation. It is like a step towards the summit of the actor’s organism in which are united consciousness and instinct.”
— Jerzy Grotowski

“Let us find our way to the unknown, the intuitive, and perhaps beyond to man’s spirit itself.. “
— Viola Spolin

 

 

 

Ronald Rand in Let It Be Art

 

"Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
- Harriet Tubman

“It is a great piece of good fortune when an actor can instinctly grasp a play with his whole being. In such happy but rare circumstances it is better to forget all about laws and methods, and give himself up to the power of his creative nature.”
- Constantin Stanislavsky

“Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.”
- C.S. Lewis

“Be silly. Be honest. Be kind.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

They took away what should have been my eyes. But I remembered Milton’s Paradise. They took away what should have been my ears, Beethoven came and wiped away my tears. They took away what should have been my tongue, but I talked with God when I was young. He would not let them take away my soul – possessing that, I still possess the whole.”
- Helen Keller, Tuscumbia, Alabama

Jamie Lee McMahan

Self-portrait by Jamie Lee McMahan

Received the Portrait Society of America International Competition’s People’s Choice Award in 2007. Mr. McMahan became a full-time professional portrait painter in his forties. Influenced by master painters Kinstler, Bettina Steinke, Joe Bowler, John Howard Sanden, and Fred Rawlinson, he has painted people in all walks of life and professions, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and award-winning author of “Roots,” Alex Haley. Mr. McMahan maintains a studio in Memphis, Tennessee.

You’ve used a quote by the Italian master, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “A person gives himself away just before or just after speaking,” when you’ve described your approach in capturing who a person is when you paint their portrait.

As a portrait artist, I am trying to get the ‘real’ person to reveal themselves, and that my work captures truth and honesty in my portrait, particularly to give the painting a real sense of justice and bring out the person underneath the surface. I try and talk to my subjects to get them relaxed at a sitting so that they’re more themselves.

Portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor by Jamie Lee McMahan

Of course, the mechanical part of setting up the portrait is necessary. For example, if I’m painting a judge, it's necessary to show them in a dignified pose. I work to have a good sense of design, with good lighting. I can’t emphasize enough how important all these mechanical things are necessary to put into place up front to bring the person out in the portrait.

John Singer Sargent preferred to not know his subject, but he was so fast and so brilliant and could capture his subject on the spot without getting to know them in depth.

You have also talked about important woman artists in your Talks, that they haven’t always received the due they deserve.

Yes, there have been women artists all throughout history which haven’t gotten credit. In particular I could mention: Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who painted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s un-finished portrait; there was Helen Carlton, who did Scarlett O’Hara’s portrait exhibited at the Margaret Mitchell House; Jean McClain painted Edith Vanderbilt’s portrait, and an artist I came across recently: Marie Goth, a rural artist.

When I travel to do commissions, I sometimes visit galleries or I’d be working someplace and I’d come across an artist I didn’t know anything about, and I’m always very impressed; it’s one of the joys in my life in discovering an artist I didn’t know anything about. Then I go out of my way to learn everything I can about who they are and what they did. It’s like finding a gold nugget; their work resonates so much with me.

You actually began in a totally different career and field. How did you decide portrait painting was who you are?

Well, when I was growing up, art really wasn’t taken very seriously in the community. I grew in a rural community, and in school, there wasn’t an art teacher. Now my mother could do anything; she was smart. She raised our family and she could draw, and she would entertain my brother and I drawing cowboys; it was like magic to me.

I started drawing all through school, then in college I took courses and became a little more serious, but I really still didn't recognize the promise of an art career.

You’ve included master artists Daniel Greene and Everett Raymond Kinstler as strong influences in your career.

First of all, I did everything wrong. A lot of people in my field know they want to be an artist or a painter or an illustrator early on. I didn’t have a clue actually, so I became a salesperson and went into a business career. It was only in middle of my life, in my forties, that I found that a career as a portrait painter was an option I could pursue.

The first time was when I went to a workshop with Daniel Green in upstate New York. It opened a window to me. The next year I studied with Raymond Kinstler in Maine for a week. He said to me: “Have you thought about doing this for a living?”

Well, that’s all I needed to hear. It pushed me over the edge and started it a new career for me, but I had no clients, really no mentors except for Kinstler. It was leap of faith and I just jumped and began to do it any way I could.

One of those whose portrait you painted was the renowned author, Alex Haley. How did that come about and what was that sessions like painting him?

Jamie Lee McMahan painting his portrait of Alex Hailey

That was a stroke of luck. When I was introduced to him, I asked him if I might be able to paint his portrait. He said: “Oh, sure.” He was very warm; you don’t always get that from famous people.

When I painted his portrait, we talked about that part of western Tennessee where Chicken George had moved to, and where he’s buried along with many members of his family.

Alex’s grandparents had a house in the small town of Henning, and he had grown up there, living with his grandparents as much as with his parents. So, consequently he’d come back to visit, and he had some property there. We found out we actually had a lot of mutual friends.

I ended up visiting him several times and stayed at his place. We’d talk about his roots when I painted him, about what happened to his boyhood friends, his family’s history. I pretty much grew up in the same area where his family’s from; we actually lived a few miles up the road from one another. When I told him, I lived next to a country church growing up, which had a big bell that would ring across the fields, he knew exactly where it was.

What was your experience creating Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer’s portrait?

I have actually painted her twice. The first time, the Yale Law School inquired about my interest in painting Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She had graduated from the Yale Law School in 1979. I had been to a previous unveiling of a portrait of hers at the New York Bar Association.

There was a three-round selection process, and I received the commission. I ended up sending different studies to her assistant. She likes modern art and didn’t want a traditional setting or a Queen Anne chair in the painting.

When we went to a dinner down in the West Village that used to be a ‘speakeasy’ in the 1920’s with close friends, I sat across from her at a tiny little table; there were Secret Service people all around. She was really just down-to-earth and straightforward, and I felt she was generally interested and having a conversation.

She actually surprised me when we met. The first thing she said to me: “Jamie, it’s good to meet you. How come you never got married? Why is that?” Well, that certainly caught me by surprise. I didn’t really have good answer. The best I could reply was: “I’ve never been in one place long enough for it to happen.”

Portrait of Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears by Jamie Lee McMahan

We’re living in a very different world of technology today, where many images can be captured and created in a matter of moments. Do you feel there still remains a strong need for a portrait captured in paint on a canvas?

Actually, I’m not sure if the need is as strong as it used to be. It may not be as appealing as it once, however, there still remains quite a few people who do want to see a portrait hanging on their wall, besides judges, business leaders, university presidents and so forth. Also, the market of representational art has been growing; there’s quite a few strong paintings coming out by excellent representation artists, and that’s certainly a good thing for portrait painting.

Do you see art and painting remaining something essential in our lives today?

I think because of shows like the ones you see on PBS and documentaries and movies about artists, all of that makes people aware of how important it is. And there are quite a few amateur artists out there who love to paint. Yes, I certainly think it does affect our lives and enhance everything we do.

Portrait of Admiral Eugene Fluckey by Jamie Lee McMahan

Being an artist defines who I am; it is something that I certainly struggle with and strive to accomplish but I certainly hope that I’m more than an artist.

During the time I spend in front of an easel, of course, while you’re painting, your mind can wander and you begin to see there are certain parallels in my work with other activities like sports or the other work that people do, to all aspects of life.

Being an artist makes you a student of art history. It’s always been about seeing, and I really like the words of the great Robert Henri: “Art when understood is the province of every human being.”

I believe paintings channel strong story telling. We’re using a language in painting to tell stories that are more than just a drawing. They’re actually bringing meaning to many people’s lives and can also make a difference in a lot of different aspects of life.

Portrait of University of Memphis Shirley Raines by Jamie Lee McMahan

A successful painting, I believe, has a sense of mystery, just like in your work as an actor. You see it in acting, writers who create plays, in dances, in music. You always find that mystery when you’re looking at a masterpiece, at a painting by somebody like Sargent.

I’m not sure if I can really put into words why a work of art grabs your attention or why it makes you feel a certain way. I want to say that’s my goal – if I can have someone who looks at one of my paintings, to get them to feel like that – I feel like I’ve done something. •


 


"It is a law of life that man cannot live for himself alone. Extreme individualism is insanity. The world's problems are also our personal problems. Health is achieved through maintaining our personal truth in a balanced relation of love to the rest of the world. No expression is more emblematic of this relation than the creative act which we call art. No art by its very constitution typifies the social nature of that creative act more than the theatre. The theatre, to be fully understood and appreciated, must be seen as a manifestation of this process of interchange between society and the individual. It must be judged as a continuous development of groups of individuals within society, a development which becomes richer, acquires greater force and value as it grows with the society in which it originates. Only in this way can the theatre nourish us.  - Harold Clurman

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