Today@Sam Article

Bearkat's Historic Art Immortalized

Feb. 22, 2023
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins

Jala Washington/KXAN News

Sam Houston State University graduate Jess Coleman teaches a number of art courses as an instructor at Prairie View A&M University, including African American Art History. The award-winning artist recently added another project to his remarkable resume and entrenched himself as a significant contributor to this storied history.

Last year, Coleman was commissioned to create a portrait of Texas civil rights activist Opal Lee, who led the push to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Earlier this month, the 96-year-old’s likeness became just the second portrait depicting a Black person to hang in the senate chamber of the state capitol building. 

“Initially, I didn’t know that it would be the second one to hang in the building,” Coleman said. “I am kind of glad I didn’t because it would have added some pressure. For some reason, I assumed there were several others.”

But Coleman admitted the project, like any portrait, still offered plenty of fundamental reasons to feel pressure.

“Painting a portrait and painting people is different from anything else,” Coleman said. “People who are not artists know what the person is supposed to look like, so everybody feels they can be a critic, which adds pressure.”

Specifically, Lee’s historical significance along with her kind-hearted attitude motivated Coleman throughout the process.

“I wanted to make it a positive reflection of her as a person, and that was probably more important than the community at large or anything,” Coleman said. “Also, it was going to be hung in a place where people will be constantly looking at it and scrutinizing it, so of course that added a little pressure.”

Coleman was one of several Texas artists who received an invitation to first apply for the commission by submitting an 11x14 oil study of Lee. He received the submission in March of 2022 and completed the portrait in early September after meeting with Lee herself and taking several photographs of her.

“I traveled to Fort Worth and spent some time with her,” Coleman said. “I took my digital camera and got to know her and get a feel for her character. She talked about the pride she had in her family and was very energetic for someone in her 90s. She is a strong-willed, down-to-earth person. She is warm and open.”

Coleman made several charcoal sketches from the pictures he took and ultimately ended up combining elements from multiple shots to create the final version that would hang in the capitol.

On Feb. 8, the portrait was officially unveiled in a ceremony at the capitol building. Lee was all smiles when she saw Coleman’s painting and expressed her love for it. Some visitors expressed tears when the portrait was first unveiled.

“I just wish my parents and grandparents were alive, because I know it would make them very proud,” Coleman said. “I feel a lot of pride.”

Coleman earned his undergraduate degree in advertising and graphic design from SHSU (’74) as well as a master’s degree in studio art (’96) and master’s in painting (’98). He also worked as a drawing instructor for the university.

“I found graduate school to be a positive and rewarding experience,” Coleman said on his time at Sam. “I got a lot of what made me want to be an artist.”

His teaching career spans over 20 years from Wharton County Junior College, Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Houston Community College and, since 2018, Prairie View A&M.

He has a number of professional exhibitions and awards, which can be viewed in detail on his website. He is a member of the College Art Association, National Alliance of Artists from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Art League of Houston and Watercolor Art Society of Houston.

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