Politics & Government

Black artist's portrait of Jesse Helms 'an honor, an irony'

WASHINGTON — Rene Dickerson's abstract, brilliantly colored paintings depict joyful scenes of African-American culture. He paints jazz, Motown, beautiful women and scenes of love.

Last spring, though, a friend in Washington invited him to lunch at the tony Capitol Hill Club, a social enclave for Republican lawmakers. The friend asked, 'Would you like to paint a portrait of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms?'

Tonight, Dickerson will unveil his portrait of Helms, who served 30 years in the Senate and died on July 4, 2008. It will hang in the Eisenhower Room of the Capitol Hill Club, and among those attending the unveiling will be GOP lawmakers, Helms' colleagues, the senator's wife and other family members.

"It's an honor and an irony," Dickerson said. "Jesse Helms was from an era in North Carolina of, he pulled no punches about blacks in this country and where their position should be."

"I had heard of Jesse Helms, but didn't know much about him," Dickerson recalled.

So he did some research.

"It was really interesting," Dickerson said.

He learned that Helms, a North Carolina Republican, had opposed every major piece of civil rights legislation to come before the Senate, that he had blocked the establishment of a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., that he won a tough campaign in 1990 against a black opponent with a last-minute ad that showed a pair of white hands crumpling a job rejection letter because of racial quotas.

In 2001, Washington Post columnist David Broder called Helms "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country."

Dickerson grew up in Oakland, Calif., in the era of the Black Panther party, but he paid little attention to the civil rights issues that was tearing apart the South.

He served in Vietnam as an illustrator and left the Army dreaming of becoming an artist. He now lives in Virginia. Now, Dickerson said, he can't believe a man of his background will stand among the powerful tonight.

"It's been such a journey," Dickerson said. "I grew as an artist, especially when painting Caucasians."

He'd done it before, but this subject was a senator. Serious business, he said. "I really worked at getting the flesh tones right."

Dickerson said he painted what he saw, what he felt. He saw in Helms a man of confidence, but one of vulnerability too, like all men.

"He was just from that era," Dickerson, 58, said of Helms in an interview Tuesday with McClatchy. "One of the things I came to appreciate about Jesse Helms was that he was a man of integrity based on what he believed. He didn't hide behind it. 'This is what I am, take it or leave it.' "

Dickerson has been so nervous that he can't sleep. He's picked out his suit for the unveiling, and he awoke at 2 a.m. Tuesday to add a few final touches to the painting. A little more light, a little glint in Helms's eyes.

The friend whom Dickerson had lunch with is Brian Summers, 39, who worked for several years as a staff associate in Helms' office in the early 1990s, giving tours and working on constituent matters.

"For me, I'm an African American," Summers said. "I never let other people's judgments of the senator impact the man I knew and respected and grew to love."

Summers, now a political consultant in Washington, decided on the drive up Interstate 95 from Helms' funeral that he wanted to commission a portrait of the senator.

Working with the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, N.C., Summers settled on the Capitol Hill Club as a location. The center, in conjunction with friends and family, is paying for the artists' supplies and the framing of the portrait, according to a spokeswoman.

Dickerson donated his talent and time, about 100 hours in all.

Only a few people, among them Helms' granddaughter, have seen the painting. It depicts the senator standing by a leather chair, his hands folded, a flag behind him.

When Helms' close associates first saw it a few weeks ago, they said the senator's hands looked too young, Dickerson said. They requested that he add liver spots, and they asked him to add a lapel pin.

Carter Wrenn, a longtime associate of Helms, said Tuesday that he'd just learned about the portrait and didn't know what the senator might make of Dickerson's race.

"I guess the question is, 'Is he a good artist?' " Wrenn said. "If it's a good picture, he'd like it."

Dickerson said he thought of his abstract paintings that celebrate diversity. One series, called "Colored People," depicts a row of crayons with human heads, all in different colors.

"I felt a lot of emotions," Dickerson said. "I don't believe what he believed. We're on two different poles. But we're equal, just like that lineup of crayons."


Artist: Rene Dickerson

Medium: acrylic on canvas

Age: 58

Childhood: Oakland, Calif.

Named after: surrealist Rene Magritte

Military service: Drafted into the Vietnam War, served as an illustrator

Residence: Lovettsville, VA.

Artist highlights: Painted album covers for The Temptations; did portraits of members of the Temptations and the Four Tops; commissioned to paint portrait of Marvin Gaye for street named in singer's honor in Washington, D.C.; a collage of Motown artists called "Berry's Vision"

Influences: Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden

Web site: www.renedickerson.com