Painter had bird's-eye view of civil rights movement

Sunday, January 18, 2009 | 4:32 p.m. CST; updated 5:48 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 18, 2009
Leonore Templeton poses with a portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Conn., on Jan. 15. The portrait of King is part of an exhibit of paintings of civil rights leaders painted by Templeton's husband, the late Robert Templeton. The portrait of King was painted from photographs provided to the artist by King's wife, Coretta Scott King.

WATERBURY, Conn. — Rosa Parks was an icon of the civil rights movement, but she didn't think she was important enough to have her portrait painted when artist arrived.

Parks, who helped spark the civil rights movement after she refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955, was baffled over why Templeton had flown all the way from New York to Detroit in 1970. Parks, who died in 2005 at age 92, figured he was just trying to use her to get access to the congressman she was working for at the time.

"He was really amazed," said Leonore Templeton, his widow. "She kept doubting that he actually came to paint her portrait. She was such an unassuming lady."

Robert Templeton, a Woodbury resident who died in 1991 at age 62, spent years painting portraits of civil rights leaders, including an 8-foot oil painting of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is marked as a federal holiday Monday. His collection is on display at the Mattatuck Museum Arts & History Center in Waterbury through March 22 in an exhibit called "Lest We Forget: Images of the Black Civil Rights Movement."

"They're compelling works because the large scale and the close-up view gives us a real sense of the character and the personality of the leaders of the movement," said Cynthia Roznoy, the museum's curator. "He had a good insight into personality and was able to express that through his brush."

The exhibit comes as President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in Tuesday as the nation's first African-American president, but Roznoy called that a "happy coincidence."

Templeton's project, first shown at Emory University in Atlanta in 1986, gave him an insider's view of the turbulent times and those who shaped them. His family is hoping to find a permanent home for the collection.

"He hoped with his paintings he would move people who walked though the collection to have a change of heart if they were in any way racist, that they could see these people in all their dignity, all their determination," Leonore Templeton said.

Robert Templeton was born the year of the stock market crash, and his father eventually lost the family farm in Iowa.

"He really grew up experiencing poverty," Leonore Templeton said. "I think naturally he had sympathy for the underdog from his own experience."

Templeton was doing portraits in Detroit when riots broke out in 1967. He drew sketches that wound up on the cover of Time magazine and are on display at the museum, but it was a dangerous assignment as rioters set fires and gun shots filled the air.

"They were throwing bricks at my husband, too," Templeton said, recalling a man reached into his car window and tried to strangle him.

Templeton had seen segregation up close earlier in Atlanta, where he witnessed sit-ins at lunch counters. Moved by what he saw down South and in Detroit, he began his portrait project so that the leaders would be recognized and remembered.

"He said he was sure some day they would succeed and this injustice would end," Leonore Templeton said.

Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, helped open doors for the white painter.

Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was near death but got out of bed for his portrait. The frail elderly man told Templeton how the FBI once viewed him as the most dangerous man in America because he had the power to bring the country to a standstill.

"When he said that to my husband, he had a real twinkle in his eye," Leonore Templeton said.

Templeton also painted the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, a close aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but didn't get to paint King before he was assassinated in 1968. His widow, Coretta Scott King, helped him sort through photos for the portrait.

"The expression in the photo is a combination of determination, sadness, resignation, hope," Leonore Templeton said. "I think it touched a fear — he must have known someone would eventually assassinate him."

Templeton also did artist renderings for the trial in 1971 of Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale in New Haven. When he tried to do a sketch on a napkin, the judge who had banned photographers and sketching materials threatened to send him to jail, his son Kevin said.

Templeton also painted a portrait of President Jimmy Carter that is displayed in the Hall of Presidents at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

Templeton said she went to the White House to help her husband set up for Carter's portrait. The bulletproof windows didn't let in a lot of light, so Templeton told his wife to tape back the draperies.

"I have the distinction of setting off the alarm in the Oval Office," Leonore Templeton said.

Secret Service agents came in with guns drawn and told the couple not to move. "Then they said, 'Don't touch the curtains,'" she said.

Carter arrived later, talking to Leonore Templeton about her native Germany as he prepared for a trip to the country. Carter and Robert Templeton talked about their childhood working on farms that played crucial roles in both men's lives.


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