In her long career as a portrait artist, Jean Pilk of Cape Elizabeth has sat with everyone from four-star generals and Supreme Court justices to singers and athletic superstars.

The list of her subjects includes Colin Powell, Harry S. Truman, J. Edgar Hoover, Gene Autry, Sandra Day O’Connor and Arnold Palmer, among many other history-makers.

Earlier this year, Pilk added outgoing Gov. John Baldacci to that list, and on Dec. 18 Pilk’s official portrait of Baldacci was unveiled during a ceremony at the State House in Augusta, where the work of art will hang alongside portraits of Maine’s previous governors.

After two decades in Washington, D.C. as one of the city’s “most sought after portrayers of political figures,” according to the Washington Post, Pilk has lived for last six years in Cape Elizabeth, where she continues her portrait career from her home studio on Arlington Lane.

The Current sat down with Pilk last week as she reflected on her art career, what it is like to work with the country’s political elite, and how young artists can follow in her footsteps.

Q: When did you first get interested in becoming a professional artist?

A: I’ve painted seriously since I was 5 years old. I always knew this is what I wanted to do. I had grandparents and great-grandparents living down the road from me growing up and I would sit them down and draw their portraits. My grandmother kept nearly everything so I have a nice running history of my work. I was an art major in college and went to the Art Students League beginning after college. Growing up I always had lessons along the way in one form or another.

Q: How were you chosen to paint Gov. John Baldacci’s portrait?

A: They had a competition and 17 artists threw their names in, along with samples of their work. I didn’t know this thing was going on. My daughter and a good friend put my name in. It was a couple months before my work was chosen. First they told me I was on the short list. The next day they called me and told me I had the commission.

Q: What is the process like? Do you have your subjects pose for you or do you rely on photographs?

A: A little of both. The first thing I do is I have a meeting with my client and we discuss what they want in the background and how big they want the painting to be. I have three sittings in my studio. I have a drawing on canvas with what I am thinking of doing. They either say they want that or they don’t.

Sittings usually last between an hour and an hour and a half. I try to make sure it doesn’t go longer than that because a sitting for the client can be very boring and tough to keep a pose. At that first meeting, I take photographs of hands or anything special they are wearing, such as rings on their fingers. Most of the work I do is from photographs because busy people don’t have a lot of time to sit. What I need the sittings for is for the hands and face. Most of the clothing and backgrounds I can do from photographs.

Q: Of the all the portraits you have done, which ones are the most memorable?

A: The most memorable one is the painting I did for Colin Powell. As a man, he was very interesting. His portrait was the first ever of the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staffs (of the Armed Forces.) The Pentagon has portraits of everyone else who have served there, but not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Colin Powell said he didn’t want his portrait hanging until the previous chairman of Joint Chiefs portraits were hung. They asked me to do that, which amounted to 12 or 13 additional paintings. That began a corridor at the Pentagon that is just for the chairmen.

Sandra Day-O’Connor was another memorable one. When I painted her portrait, she was the first woman to be on the Supreme Court, so that was pretty exciting.

Q: Is there any trepidation or fear about accurately depicting your subject when you get commissioned to do a portrait?

A: No, it is my job. I have trained to do this job. I know when I get the call that I am up for the challenge. I am more excited about it than having any sort of trepidation or fear of not doing it right. The people who call me up are usually familiar with my work so they are pretty much at home with me working with them. You have that back and forth trust in each other. This is my interpretation of the people, so you’ll get some people who will like it, but others who won’t like it. I haven’t had a portrait rejected though.

Q: What advice would you have for an aspiring artist?

A: I talk to schools quite a bit and I tell high school students or college students that like anything in the arts, there is a period of getting established and making a name for yourself. For the beginner, you are not going to make a lot of money. It will take awhile before you make the money for all the hours you put in. I think the first thing young people don’t realize is how long it takes to establish yourself.

Gov. John E. Baldacci greets artist Jean Pilk of Cape Elizabeth during the unveiling of his official portrait Dec. 18 at the State House in Augusta, as Donna McNeil, director of the Maine Arts Commission, looks on. (Courtesy photo)

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