By Nina Tabios
On Wednesday, Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, Academy of Art University President Elisa Stephens held a special luncheon in the Atelier Gallery for close friend and supporter of the school, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Jr.
In a way, the event was a belated birthday celebration of sorts. Brown turned 85 this past March, and President Stephens decided to commission Executive Director of the School of Fine Art—Painting & Printmaking Craig Nelson, a decorated fine artist, to create a portrait of Brown.
“What better gift for a guy who, frankly, likes himself a lot,” President Stephens said to a laughing audience present for the unveiling, “than a portrait of himself.”
Brown was “absolutely flabbergasted, delighted.” Typical of Nelson’s style, the essence of Brown rang true in the painting: perched in a semi-relaxed pose with an almost side glimpse and a finger resting on his chin, Nelson said he wanted his portrayal of Brown to be more natural.
“I’ve seen many [politicians] overly posed,” Nelson said. “And this is a little bit more of a casual kind of glance; he’s not quite looking at you, he’s slightly looking back at you.”
Nelson followed the mayor’s political career since he was the State Assembly democratic whip in 1969, and well into his mayoral tenure between 1996 to 2004. But he will always remember the time when Brown made time to be the subject of an Academy student’s film thesis almost 15 years ago.
Brown extended his generosity by posing in Nelson’s quick studies class (this was during his Panama hat stage, Nelson recalled). From that moment, the politician was forever engrained as a “good guy,” who was also “a very charming guy. And he has a little bit of a sense of humor too.”
And that same wit shined bright at the portrait unveiling. Speaking out to friends and colleagues in the room (including Congresswoman Barbara Lee) Brown thanked the Academy for presenting him with such a unique and special gift. Even he was impressed with how well Nelson captured him, acknowledging the work with his signature quirk and comedy: “Just the look is consistent: This is totally and completely me when you’re talking to me,” said Brown, “and I’m thinking of something else.”
For Nelson, he wanted to capture Brown at his current point in life. “This painting depicts him after he was mayor at the stage, where he is a very successful attorney in San Francisco. This is him later on in life,” Nelson said. “It’s a portrait of a man [as he is now]. And he’s as spry as can be, he’s as sharp as can be.”