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.”