Local artist to paint portrait of Twilight
The Vermont Statehouse is filled with framed portraits of governors, historic military figures and — let’s just say it — old white men. Addison County Sen. Ruth Hardy stepped up in January 2020 and introduced legislation to help diversify this collection of portraits to better represent the diversity of the state. Just last week, it was announced that Middlebury artist Katie Runde was selected to paint a life-size portrait of Alexander Twilight — an important early Vermont educator and minister, who is believed to be the first person of African descent to be an American legislator and a graduate of an American college (Middlebury College).
“I am honored to be commissioned to paint such an important figure,” said Runde in the state’s press release, “both in terms of Vermont’s enterprising, progressive past and how we now choose to model our future.”
For several years, the Friends of the Vermont Statehouse (a private nonprofit that has worked for nearly 40 years helping to restore the building and to educate visitors at Vermont’s capitol in Montpelier) and State Curator David Schutz have had Twilight on a short list of possible portrait commissions. Twilight was selected this year to honor his achievements and character.
The Statehouse “is the edifice that represents our government, and all Vermonters need to feel connected to it,” Schutz said.
Including people of color.
Born in Corinth, Vt., in 1795, Twilight rose above his childhood status as an indentured servant to attend and graduate from Middlebury College in 1823. He devoted his life to education, moving to Brownington in 1829, where he became the principal of the Orleans County Grammar School and the pastor of the Brownington Congregational Church. Both institutions flourished under his leadership, and in 1836 he built an imposing, four-story granite schoolhouse and dormitory that still dominates the hilltop village of Brownington. Twilight called it “Athenian Hall,” and today it is owned by the Orleans County Historical Society and is known as The Old Stone House. That same year, Twilight was elected to represent Brownington in the Vermont Legislature.
Runde, born in upstate New York in the 1980s, grew up in a very different world than Twilight, but still sees overlaps in their lives. To start, she worked on a cheese farm in Corinth (Blythedale Farm), earned her Master’s in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and was a Waldorf school teacher for three years in Tunbridge. Aside from location, ministry and education, Runde also sees a “huge overlap between misogyny and racism,” she said in an interview last week. “The movement to egalitarianism is good for everybody.”
As the selected artist for this life-size commission, Runde now faces at least a year’s worth of work to complete Twilight’s portrait. The cost of the portrait will be covered by a generous grant from the National Life Group of Vermont.
“I’m going to start with several sketches so there are different ideas to choose from,” she said. “There are a lot of different aspects to think about and a lot of information to get in the portrait without making it too busy. The trick is to show who the person is without using words… How are we going to show that?”
Runde said once she has the idea, there will be a lot of back and forth between Schutz, the Friends of the Vermont Statehouse and other collaborators about what will be included in the portrait and what won’t. Then she’ll need a body double in accurate clothing because all she has to work on now is a “tiny daguerreotype.”
Rest assured, Twilight’s portrait is in good hands. Runde has been an artist her whole life. She remembers her young-self as “that kid” — you know, the wacky one who carried around an encyclopedia of animals and a sketch pad. With a healthy dose of sibling competition, Runde found drawing as the “one thing I was better at than my sister.”
By age 15 she was selling her work commercially at the Corn Hill Arts Festival in Rochester, N.Y. But “pumping out work just to do work was destructive for me,” Runde said. And that set her life off in a different direction.
Next she found music — saxophone and woodwinds specifically — went to a conservatory for a couple years, but found it felt mechanical. She went abroad to study folklore and earn her bachelor’s degree from University College in Cork, Ireland. Continued to earn her master’s in Chicago and then turned to teaching here in Vermont.
“I was so burned out all the time,” said Runde, reflecting on her teaching years. “It was taking something I didn’t really have. As I finished out the year, I started sneaking back into my artistic self with (graphite) pencil and colored pencil… Pencils are great because there are zero toxins, but the color was just not vibrant enough.”
Runde enrolled in a one-week class in 2014 to learn more about oil painting.
“You can actually teach anyone how to do realist art,” Runde said. “It is way more accessible than you realize.”
She then went to Florence, Italy, for a two-week course to further her knowledge, but got sidelined for several months with a bad case of C. diff (also known as Clostridioides difficile, a severe gastrointestinal illness she picked up after an appendicitis surgery).
“Kicking back into gear was difficult after that,” said Runde, who was living in Southern Vermont at the time. “But shortly after, I found my teacher Evan Wilson; I’d drive down to Hoosick Falls, N.Y., every week.”
From 2016-2018, Runde undertook a two-year apprenticeship with master realist painter Wilson.
She established her own studio in White River Junction but COVID threw a wrench in that plan. She moved to Middlebury in the spring of 2020 to lock down with her partner James Chase Sanchez, who teaches writing and rhetoric at Middlebury College. Runde traded her large studio for a small guest room with one north-facing window and not enough room to step back far enough to see a painting properly. Not ideal for painting a portrait of Twilight that she estimates will be about 5-feet, 7-inches tall.
All the same, Runde has a calm and elegant confidence as she thinks about beginning this commission for the Statehouse.
“It has to be alive,” she answered when asked what makes one of her paintings good? “You’ve either got the spark or you don’t; you can’t fake it. You’ve got to get started and get out of your own way.”
Runde likened the soul of a painting to music that has soul.
“Music has soul when it’s raw and direct,” she said. “Your self has to go into your work. It’s natural to have walls around yourself, but to get that spark in your art you have to let those walls down and let yourself into it. There’s a sense of openness.”
When she spoke last week, Runde was open about her hesitation as someone who identifies as a white female painting the portrait of a black male.
“At first I thought it might be better for an artist of color to do this,” she said. “I feel like it’s not necessarily my place.”
But she applied, and was selected.
“I do feel really connected with Twilight and his dedication to teaching and ministry … and I’ve always had a special thing for Corinth,” Runde reiterated. “It’s a really good direction for the Statehouse to be moving in and I feel proud Alexander Twilight is the person they’re choosing to honor. The weight of that honor is a little intimidating but also inspiring — it is so easy to stand behind.”
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