Painting the legendary Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest highlights of my career and offered me a front row seat into some of the day to day realities of the Champ’s life in his later years.
My collaboration with Ali began when Albert Scaglione of Park West Gallery asked me to submit some paintings for possible inclusion in a new program featuring the Champ. What started out as a creative project became a personal one when Lonnie, Muhammad’s wife called and asked if they could get some of my paintings for their home. A few weeks later I travelled to Louisville with Albert and Mitzi Scaglione to call on the Ali’s in their newly decorated home, resplendent with my Ali portraits. We sat and visited for a while and then Lonnie showed us around, walking past the life sized Andy Warhol Elvis paintings to the gym where Ali continued to work out every day, despite his disability. Then on to his study where my painting called “Distant Thunder” looked down on the proceedings.
Back in the studio the Ali portraits continued to roll out and although I did paint several of his fights I was fascinated most of all by his face. It was a face that showed a thousand different emotions. An enigma, beautiful, never far from a smile and always with the eyes on something just ahead, something away in the distance. Who knows how many blows it had suffered and yet there it was, radiant, kind, impish. Although the years added layers of suffering to his features they never did manage to fully extinguish the sparkle of the Young Cassius who hid behind them.
Once, while I was preoccupied with my work, he looked slowly up and fixed a menacing eye on me, as I looked back somewhat concerned, he lunged at me with a left hook and then just started laughing. His timing was perfect. Always.
I loved that about him and one of the greatest lessons I shall take away from my time with him was that sense of joy he had in living. He struggled immensely with his Parkinson’s, but always went the extra mile to let his fans get their picture taken with him or to crack some joke.
Not many people are aware that he was also an artist. As part of his therapy he would sit in his recliner and do intricate designs with colored markers all day long. We sat together sketching once when I was at his home in Scottsdale. He with his markers and me with my pencil, working on his portrait, it was an intimate moment, the world’s greatest sporting figure sitting quietly in his favorite chair while I carefully observed and sketched.
I was honored to be asked to speak on their behalf at the Vancouver International Film Festival for the premier of the movie “Facing Ali.” Then in 2009 he personally commissioned me to paint two joint portraits of himself and then President elect Barak Obama. The completed works were unveiled at the Kentucky Bluegrass Ball on the eve of President Obama’s first Inauguration by actress Ashley Judd. I always remember beginning my speech to the assembled great and good that night with the words: “You can tell by my accent that I am not from Kentucky.” Ashley and I had to stay on the stage after the unveiling in order to hold on to the paintings while the Temptations came up and sang a rendition of “My Girl” to Lonnie Ali who was on the platform with Muhammad. It was pretty funny, hiding up on stage behind the artworks, while the performers did their thing. As the band left the stage, A guy called Mitch McConnell came up and spoke. Back in those days, as a newly minted immigrant, I was not yet conversant with the ins and outs of American politics, so the title ‘Senate Majority Leader” meant little to me, but he seemed like a nice enough guy.
In my paintings of him I always painted a warm and cool side to his face, giving his features a kind of movie poster, mythical look, and then the eyes, nearly always looking into the distance, anticipating the next big fight. I used his face to tell a story, not of the outer fight, but the inner one and ultimately I think that is why we can all relate so well to him, because his battles inspire us with the strength and the courage to get up for another round and to take the blows if necessary, but ultimately to come out the other side a better version of ourselves that we were before.
Muhammad, I will miss our times together, but you gave me a special gift and I hope in some small way I can pass that same spark that you gave to me onto the world for future generations to enjoy. Rest in peace now, your fight is over, your battle won.