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The Artist’s Way by Geoff Gehman

All over the Ursinus campus, luminaries from throughout the college’s 150-year history are captured in portraits that hang in hallways and classrooms, each of them painted with exquisite detail by the steady hand of Ted Xaras. Recently, the artist toured campus with Ursinus Magazine to see some of his favorites and provide a glimpse into his creative process.

Ted Xaras is leading a tour of his painted portraits of Ursinus leaders—presidents, deans, trustees, patrons, teachers, librarians—hanging around the campus where he taught art, art history and art as history from 1973 to 2007. In no time flat, he turns a tour into a casual, colorful class in craft and creativity, connections and compromises.

The first tour stop is the Kaleidoscope, home to Xaras’s portrait of the late John Strassburger, whose 1995-2010 presidency included the building of the performing-arts center. Standing between three students in the Kaleidoscope lobby in the portrait, Xaras’s Strassburger is a sort of genial pied piper.

Portrait of John Strassburger. Photo by Dominic Monte.

“Don’t make me the center of the stage,” he told Xaras, and the artist responded by having him listen rather than be listened to during a play’s intermission. According to Xaras, it was a natural request from someone who “would always listen to anybody about anything.”

The portrait has a slight sleight of hand. Abbie Cichowski ’10 is one of the students in the painting, holding a playbill for The Diary of Anne Frank, but the hand holding the program belongs to Ted's wife, Judy, because Abbie wasn't available to pose at the time he was working on that part of the painting. Judy, the artist says, was photographed in their backyard in a variety of gestures, “like a slow-motion movie.”

A portrait, it turns out, is a kind of painted jigsaw puzzle.

“Everyone is not in the perfect position simultaneously,” Xaras says, “so you have to cobble” people, places and props.

The next stop is the Innovation and Discovery Center, home to Xaras’s portrait of Bobby Fong, president from 2011 until his death in 2014. An Oscar Wilde scholar and avid fan of all things baseball, Xaras’s Fong stands in the middle distance on the walkway leading to Pfahler Hall, smiling and arrow straight as he holds a Wilde volume. He projects the welcoming nobility of a child of Chinese immigrants who became an ambassador for experiential education.

Portrait of Bobby Fong by Ted Xaras. Photo by Dominic Monte.

Making a seamless painting usually requires serious stitching. Xaras only met Fong three times. His only decent photo of the president was a head-and-shoulders shot in three-quarter profile. He compromised by photographing a body double—an Ursinus computer science professor—posing at an angle. It’s another portrait-painter trick. Van Dyck, he notes, prepared for portraits by clothing mannequins in borrowed royal robes.

Xaras’s portrait of Fong is backed by a pack of students, a suggestion from a group of advisors that included the president’s widow, Suzanne. One student holds a baseball bat, another suggestion from the committee. In front of the students is a wide-open space, a time-honored device to encourage viewers to mentally enter the frame and become characters.

Ted Xaras with Suzanne Fong. Photo by Dan Z. Johnson.

A portrait, it turns out, is also a map of what Xaras calls “selective realism.” He illustrates his point by paraphrasing Nicolas Poussin, a 17th-century French artist, who said, “Paint the subject, not as it actually happened, but as would have happened, if nature were perfect.”

A tour becomes a homecoming as Xaras keeps meeting old friends. Standing by the Fong portrait, chemistry professor Vic Tortorelli tells of voluntarily shaving his considerable mustache while portraying a biochemistry pioneer in Xaras’s epic portrait of scientific titans for a pharmaceutical giant.

Tortorelli accompanies us to Pfahler Hall, home to Xaras’s portrait of the late Roger P. Staiger ’43, chemistry chair and namesake of a chemistry faculty development fund. Xaras admires his classroom blackboard, which indeed resembles chalky slate. But at the time he was busy with teaching while also painting— “tap dancing while carrying plates,” he says—so Judy Xaras painted in great detail the complex periodic table behind Staiger. Her help enabled him to finish the painting in a white-hot 90 days. Remembering the day it was unveiled, Tortorelli joked, “The paint was probably still wet.”

Portrait of Roger P. Staiger ’43. Photo by Dominic Monte.

Scores of Ursinus students remember Xaras performing his lessons. He’s a pretty theatrical tour guide, too. He italicizes words, flings arms, bobs and slides and rocks. At times he mimics a movie director setting up shots.

Once asked when is a painting finished, Leonardo da Vinci replied, “Our work is never finished, it is merely taken away.” Some versions of that story quote da Vinci as saying that “we run out of time.” Examining the portrait, Xaras laments his lack of detail and depth in Staiger’s tie clasp—that tie clasp hangs in a frame near the portrait in Pfahler.

Myrin Library is home to Xaras’s side-by-side portraits of two late librarians, the Rev. Dr. Calvin Yost Sr. (1891) and Calvin Yost Jr. ’30, author of the definitive Ursinus College: A History of its First Hundred Years. Gene Spencer, the college’s chief information officer for library and information technology, says that some visitors wonder why Calvin Sr.’s tie is slightly askew. Xaras admits he was too detail-oriented in reproducing Yost’s photo, that he should have knotted his tie to the neck.

Xaras enjoyed Calvin Yost Jr.’s rich stories of his native Collegeville. “He spoke about the dark ages, the red-light district,” says the artist about the librarian. “He seemed to know where all the skeletons are buried.” This sunny personality colors Xaras’s portrait of Yost sitting easily in a corner of his home, his body bathed in streaming light. Xaras says the composition is intentionally asymmetrical, the better to make eyes roam all over the librarian’s homey world.

We walk to Olin Hall, home to a conference room that doubles as a gallery for Xaras’s portraits of three former deans of the college. The most magnetic subject is the late Richard Groth Bozorth, who looks 19th-century regal in commencement robes in a long side view. Painting a portrait is ultimately a soul pilgrimage. “It’s a journey to discover the psychology of people,” Xaras says, “what they like, what they’re like.”

Xaras views Ursinus history from a unique lens. One could say he has authored an illustrated history, much in the same way Yost captured the college’s early years in written form. He didn’t retire from Ursinus as much as he retired his career. Shortly after packing up his Collegeville spaces, he began teaching in the continuing-education division of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, also a teaching home for Thomas Eakins, the legendary portraitist.

Give him two days, he insists, and he’ll turn anyone, even an all-thumbs rookie, into a decent portraitist.

“If somebody is interested in art, and if I have any time at all, I’m going to turn them on.”

Credits:

Dan Z. Johnson, Nicole Hope Matthews, Dominic Monte