On a cold afternoon in late March, painter William Hawk leans back in a chair in his studio, which is filled with tubes of paint, landscape paintings, wooden boxes and an easel, he glances at a large portrait in a corner of the room. The man in the painting has an oval face with small eyes. He has thinning hair and looks to be in his 70s.
When Harold Bennett Kline died in 1998, at age 88, his estate left a gift of about $1.4 million to establish a chair in MU’s Department of Philosophy. In appreciation of the gift, Hawk was commissioned last fall to paint a portrait of Kline, who graduated from MU in 1932 with degrees in economics and philosophy.
Hawk — an associate professor who teaches painting in MU’s Fine Arts Department — was chosen to paint Kline from five artists who submitted proposals to a committee of the College of Arts and Science. He used biographical information and photographs of Kline that spanned about 20 years of his life as references for the portrait.
“I want the painting to feel like the person in all of the images,” Hawk said. “I want to give him a contemplative look.”
Hawk used watercolor on cotton paper for the portrait, which shows Kline in a suit sitting in an armchair with his legs crossed. The background is a mixture of blue tones with a framed likeness of Kline’s mother, Florence — for whom the chair is named — in the background.
Born in Muncie, Ind., Hawk never went to art museums while he was growing up, but he enjoyed religious paintings and the animation of Walt Disney. Hawk was raised in a conservative Christian family, and his first memory of painting was when he was 3 or 4 years old and an Evangelist minister spoke at his church.
“He would draw pictures in pastel crayon depicting the scenes in his sermon,” Hawk said.
His parents took one of the pictures and hung it up in their home.
Hawk has a bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing from the University of Akron and a master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis. But Hawk began college as a psychology major, interested in helping people cope with problems and as a way to help him find his own identity. He found psychology to be “moot to human sensibility.” After switching to art studies, Hawk said he recognized a truer connection to humanity that he did not find in studying psychology.
Kline received a law degree from Harvard and practiced law in New York City in the late 1930s. He later served as vice president and general counsel for Texas Gulf Corp. in New York until his retirement in 1975, when he moved back to Columbia. He often attended university and philosophy department events.
Nancy Moen, the director of communications in the College of Arts and Science, said the committee knew the portrait would be difficult because the subject was deceased.
“We only had a few grainy photos to work with,” she said. “There were several different styles to Bill’s work, and we felt he could give a beautiful rendering.”
Bill Bondeson, a philosophy professor at MU and assistant to the chancellor, also served on the committee that selected Hawk.
“Hawk looked at the photos carefully and had a sense of the design,” Bondeson said. “Hawk also has a good reputation for getting things done well and on time.”
Hawk said the portrait process is slow and involves much painting and repainting to capture a likeness. Hawk said when an artists work on a piece for a while they can become blind to it. He looks at a reflection of the portrait in a mirror to see it with a fresh eye. He also relies on his graduate students to give him encouragement.
Hawk asked Curtis Erlinger, a graduate student in fine arts at MU, for advice during the beginning stages of the portrait. Hawk said they talked about proportion and shifting facial features to more closely resemble the photos.
Hawk looks forward to seeing the portrait hanging in the halls of the College of Arts and Science and has appreciated the experience.
“I admire Harold’s love of learning. He shows that you can go out into the practical world and still have a love of humanity,” Hawk said. “I’ve grown to like Harold quite a bit and want to do him justice with this painting.”