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David Lenz's perfect world
Shorewood artist reflects on the events that 
led to his National Portrait Gallery commission


January 9, 2007

Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2006 "Sam and the Perfect World" Artist: David Lenz, Shorewood, Wisconsin 2005 - Oil on linen - Collection of the artist

When youíre a kid, you tend to have only an inkling of what your mom and dad do during the day. Maybe youíve visited Momís office on occasion; Dad might come and make a little speech at your schoolís career day.

That makes Sam Lenz a little bit unusual. He knows what his dad does.

On a quiet, tree-lined Shorewood street, in a studio tucked behind the garage next to a little patio where Samís brightly colored toys are scattered about, Samís dad paints.

"Itís no big deal to him," says Samís dad, David Lenz. "Heís grown up with me being back here painting and he thinks itís kind of normal to have his dad paint his picture."

Samís dad has occasionally included Sam in his work. If youíve ever visited Childrenís Hospital of Wisconsin, you can see Sam ó all bundled up for a winterís day of play ó in a mural that Lenz painted for the hospitalís entry.

But two years ago, Lenz had the urge to paint a major piece about his son. The day that Lenz started working on "Sam and the Perfect World" was the start of a career-changing experience for him. For Sam, it was just another day in the life of a 9-year-old boy whose dad happens to paint.

Lenzís work about his son earned him first place in the 2006 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonianís National Portrait Gallery. "Iíd read about the competition in an art magazine," Lenz says. "Iíd actually grown discouraged from entering art contests. Realism has been out of fashion my entire career."

Some people call Lenzís work photo-realism, but he prefers a slightly different term. While his work is strikingly realistic, he layers in meaning, which often means that heís creating an image that doesnít actually exist in real life.

"Iím not trying to imitate photography," he says. "I like to think of my paintings as socially realistic."

Lenz is a practical artist and he understood that this particular contest could be his best shot. "It was for the National Portrait Gallery and I thought, ĎWell, portraits are of people and they tend to be realistic,í" he remembers. "It was the final little nudge I needed to paint a picture exclusively about Sam and about his role, his place in the world."

David Lenz, Rosemarie Feiza-Lenz and their son, Sam.

In addition to being a rather typical, silly and happy 9-year-old boy, Sam Lenz was born with Down syndrome.

"The idea had been simmering for a while and when I sat down to compose the work ó poof! ó it came right out," explains Lenz. "Because it wasnít a commissioned piece, I had carte blanche and I really could do what I wanted, but I had to work very fast if I wanted to get it done in time for the competition."

Lenzís work is exacting, particular and detailed. For "Sam and the Perfect World," he created a color sketch and three preliminary paintings. The final concept was simple and complex at the same time: An overall-clad Sam peers seriously out of the canvas. Heís standing outside, in front of a fence before a pasture. The sky is cloudless, except for the sun, which is surrounded by a halo.

"All of the elements in my paintings are put there purposely," Lenz says. "Thereís a lot of thought behind what I compose. For example, in ĎSam and the Perfect World,í that fence wasnít going in there unless it had a purpose for being there."

After a summer of intense painting, Lenz finished his piece a week early and sent off his entry. A little more than two months later ó though he says it seemed like a tremendously long time ó he received word that, out of more than 4,000 artists who entered, he was selected as part of the top 100 semifinalists.

"I figured out how high 4,000 sheets of paper was," he says as an aside. "That many sheets of paper is 18 inches tall, and I was in the top 100 sheets. It was an amazing thought."

At that point, the National Portrait Gallery arranged for pickup of "Sam and the Perfect World."

"I was hopeful, but I didnít want to set myself up for disappointment," he says. "I knew that there were some great artists entering the contest. But whatever was to happen, would happen."

The day before Samís birthday in March 2006, he received a little more good news: Heíd become one of the seven finalists and his work would be exhibited in the show.

The ultimate winner would not be announced until June 23, and to find out whom the jury selected, David, his wife, Rosemarie, and Sam would have to make a trip to Washington.

"Of course it was exciting," Lenz admits. "I was surprised that I was in the position at all, and just as surprised to win."

As winner of the first-ever competition, Lenz received a cash prize of $25,000 and a commission to paint a "remarkable" American. That piece will become part of the galleryís permanent collection.

Prior to the contest, Lenzís following had been primarily limited to Milwaukee and the Midwest. Now, however, word has gotten out far beyond home about Lenz. Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, discussed the piece on NPRís "Talk of the Nation." Fellow artists, art lovers and tourists have all seen his piece on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

"Iíve been very gratified by the response," Lenz says. "Iíve received e-mails from all across the country ó a whole variety of them ó from galleries interested in my work, advocacy groups and just people who saw the work."

Lenz is someone who is used to seeing details, to seeing clear, true meaning in small places. While heís clearly pleased by the grand events of the past few months, he hasnít let it affect the way he sees and experiences life. "I just had someone in Maine who contacted me and said, ĎSend me your catalog,í" he says. "Now that Ö thatís just wild to me."

"Sam and the Perfect World" will remain on exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, through Feb. 19. His rural works will be part of the "Wisconsinís People on the Land" exhibit, running April 3 through May 20 at the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Art and Letters in Madison.