Aretha: a muse for fine artists
Not every cultural icon inspires fine art, but Aretha Franklin seems to have acted as a muse for any number of Detroit artists. The Detroit News spoke with three local painters who created particularly handsome portraits of the Queen of Soul.
Kristin Beaver painted a large canvas of Franklin in 2009. Both Dominic Pangborn and Jason Phillips were moved to take brush in hand on hearing of her death.
One-time Hamtramck resident Kristin Beaver painted Aretha Franklin nine years ago.
The 2009 Kresge Artist Fellow, now living in southern Italy, wrote by email to say that she painted Franklin and the Marvelettes as part of a small series she did for Motown's 50th anniversary.
"The portraits all hung in the Fisher Building lobby during the 2009 Taste Fest, I think," Beaver said. "I found out that one or two of the Marvelettes saw my painting of them, and I was so hoping to connect with The Queen, but it never happened to my knowledge."
Beaver was moved to paint Franklin, she said, because she wanted to pay "homage to a woman I admire, and was surrounded by since I can remember." Her favorite songs, Beaver added, include "Natural Woman," "Won't Be Long" and "Running Out of Fools."
She used the album cover from "Running Out of Fools" as her model -- a sweet image of a very young Aretha looking back over her shoulder at the camera.
"I was drawn to the starkness of the image on 'Running Out of Fools,' Beaver said, "and how young and fresh she looked, floating in white."
Artist and designer Dominic Pangborn, famous for his colorful ties and women's purses, has a history of painting celebrated singers after their deaths.
"I did a portrait of Michael Jackson and one of Whitney Houston," said the Grosse Pointe resident. "I guess as an artist, it's just a natural instinct."
Pangborn worked from an image he found online in which the Queen of Soul, with luxuriant, auburn hair, looks to be in her mid-30s. He's not entirely sure when it was taken or for what -- nor does a Google image search turn up any information.
Unlike Beaver, however, Pangborn was lucky enough to meet Aretha.
"I met her a couple times," he said. "I was friends with Mayor (Dennis) Archer, and met her at the Manoogian Mansion."
Pangborn recalls the superstar as a subdued presence.
"She was very quiet," he said. "She wasn't somebody who walked into a room and started talking to everybody."
As to why he wanted to paint Franklin, Pangborn said, "I've been in Detroit almost 40 years, and she was probably the biggest legend here in town. Having met her a couple times," he added, "just made painting her more personal than, say, Michael Jackson."
His favorite song? "I guess 'Respect,' " Pangborn said, "though I suppose that's everybody's."
The artist said he did the acrylic-and-oil painting "just for myself," though he expects he'll probably end up donating it.
He's working on a series of portraits for an African-American history museum being planned for St. Louis, Pangborn said, adding that it might possibly find a home there.
Like many native Detroiters, Jason Phillips grew up in a home where Franklin was often coming out of his parents' stereo.
"I don't normally do fan art," said Phillips, also a tattoo artist who owns Detroit Ink Spot on West McNichols, "but we lost a legend. So I stepped outside my box and paid tribute to Aretha."
His favorite songs, he said, include "Until You Come Back to Me," "You Send Me," and "Rock Steady."
Phillips pulled the image of a young Franklin off the internet, a black-and-white picture in which she's wearing a white hood that frames her face.
The artist often adds 23-carat gold leaf to his oil paintings -- and in this case changed the white hood to gilt.
"I wanted to gold-leaf the garment," Phillips said, "to give her an angelic look."
Phillips did the portrait all in one day shortly after Franklin's death. He said he was pleased to see how well it fits in with a larger series he's working on which he's titled "Black Girl Magic."
The portraits, mostly of nonfamous women, he said, "has an Afro-punk, Afrofuturist slant to it."
And why paint Aretha?
"Aw man," Phillips said with a laugh. "She was like the original diva for me. She definitely represented Detroit to the fullest. And you know, of course, her music touched the world."
He's planning on making a limited number of prints of the painting, which people will be able to buy at Detroit Ink Spot or on his website, jasonphillipsstudio.com.
And would he do a tattoo of Aretha if a customer asked?
"Oh, most definitely," Phillips said. "I've done Michael Jackson. When somebody passes," he added, "people like to have a memory of them."