The news arrived in April that a third painting by Richmond artist Louis Briel had been acquired by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery for its collection.
The gallery’s acquisition of his portrait of Dustin Lance Black, a screenwriter and activist who won the Academy Award for “Milk,” was, of course, a big honor for Briel — to have one painting among the National Portrait Gallery’s collection is a big deal, to have three is a résumé-boost most artists can’t match — and the timing couldn’t have been better. It provided a much-needed jolt of affirmation at a time when Briel was struggling with circumstances that left him unable to do what he had come to do so well — paint.
Briel, 69, is recovering from a stroke he suffered almost three years ago. On the Monday after Thanksgiving 2012, he was sitting at his computer and began to feel blood rushing through his head. He walked to the elevator of his downtown apartment and punched the button for the ground floor, where he told office workers, “I think you guys need to call an ambulance because I think I’m having a stroke.”
His doctor told him later he was “dead” when he arrived in the hospital operating room, where he underwent surgery to stop the internal bleeding. That he is still here at all is fairly remarkable, though the journey back from that point has been difficult and discouraging enough at times to make him wonder, at the darkest moments, if surviving was good luck or bad.
“It’s really turned my life upside-down in many ways,” he said. “I’ve had to adjust to a life that is far less than perfect.”
For a while after the stroke, there was a disconnect between what his left eye was seeing and what his brain thought it was seeing, a particularly thorny issue for an artist to overcome. That situation improved, and Briel finally reached a point physically where he could try to paint again in earnest.
In June, he began putting brush to canvas on a regular basis — while sitting at the easel because he is still undergoing rehab to regain strength and balance to stand and walk — and it was not what you would call a perfectly joyous reunion with an old friend. Some days, the demands of physical therapy left him so exhausted he had no energy for painting. Other days have been merely frustrating, but on he goes.
Though he paints with his right hand and the stroke affected his left side, the fact that his left hand and arm still don’t work quite right means that everything — even down to unscrewing the top from a tube of acrylic paint — takes longer. Moving the easel a few inches this way or that requires the help of an assistant.
“I used to be able to do everything myself,” Briel said. “So, it’s different. It’s an adjustment.”
When asked how it felt to be painting again, Briel said he probably should say how “marvelous” it is to be back “in my own skin again,” but the reality is something less idyllic.
“I am a good trouper,” he said. “If I have a rehab on Tuesday, I’m there and I do it. This is kind of a part of my rehab, I think. I don’t know that I’ve ever had fun with painting. I suppose I do sometimes because I do find myself whistling and stuff like that. But it’s always been work. It’s always been a very serious thing for me. I’ve really cared how it turns out.”
And he still cares, perhaps even more than ever, wanting to regain the form that brought him to this point and to prove he can paint well again.
Briel recalls the first time he visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. He says he looked around and told friends, “ ‘God, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a painting here? I know that’ll never happen.’ My friend said, ‘Well, you never know.’ It wasn’t five years later that they took my painting of Arthur Ashe.”
Following its acquisition of Briel’s painting of the tennis great, the gallery acquired Briel’s portrait of Richmond advertising executive David N. Martin.
“We are pleased to have the three portraits by Mr. Briel,” said Elisabeth H. Johnson, curatorial research and program assistant in the gallery’s department of painting and sculpture. She said there are approximately 22,000 portraits in the gallery’s collection and about 900 are on view at any one time. The portrait of Ashe is currently on view; however, the portraits of Martin and Black are not.
Briel’s splash as an artist has rippled well beyond the National Portrait Gallery. In 1995, the U.S. House of Representatives added his portrait of Rep. Thomas J. Bliley of Richmond to its collection. His haunting portrait of Princess Diana accompanied Elton John on a world tour in the late 1990s and is now part of the singer-songwriter’s personal collection. Briel’s posthumous portrait of Carol Burnett’s daughter Carrie Hamilton hangs in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at The Pasadena Playhouse in California.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Briel, then a sophomore at Hampden-Sydney College, went home on Christmas break and painted a portrait of the slain president that he presented to Robert F. Kennedy the following spring. He shook Kennedy’s hand and joked later he didn’t wash the hand for a week.
Over the years, the Virginia native and graduate of Douglas Freeman High School has mostly lived in Virginia, though for a few years he called Los Angeles home. He embraced the idea of living part of the year in California and the rest in Richmond, but the logistics became too much and he’s been living full time in Richmond since 2007.
Painting hasn’t always been a full-time pursuit. He was a teaching fellow in the classics department at Harvard University, where he earned a master’s in classical philology, and he worked as a fundraiser at Hampden-Sydney. Later, he took a year off to write two novels. But painting is what he has come to know and what he has come to be known for.
It’s also what he thinks about — “I’m painting in my head all the time,” he says, “whether it goes on canvas or not” — and that was true even when he wasn’t able to paint.
“My subconscious has been working overtime,” he said during an interview in May, near the end of his long exile from painting. “For two months, I dreamed about painting every night, and I would wake up in the morning and wish I’d had a camera in the dream with me. I was doing new work, and it was all in color, but I couldn’t pull it out of the dream with me.”
Briel lives and works in a high-rise near the river, a huge window in his studio offering a grand view of the downtown skyline. On a recent morning, the light streamed in as Briel sat before a painting on his easel of a former neighbor named Jason. When he returned to his art, he began with a painting of a friend’s historic house in California, believing a change of pace — an architectural painting rather than a portrait — might be the way to get back into it. But he soon felt stymied by that project and moved back to portraits, and he settled on completing the painting of his former neighbor that he started three years ago, before the stroke.
To the untrained eye, the painting looked liked a finished work. But Briel talked about the tweaks he wanted to make to the background, to Jason’s complexion and to his shirt.
“It’s just a process of gradually bringing it more to life,” he said, sitting beside a white ceramic platter, dabbed with puddles of color, that serves as his palette. “Though I don’t know when I finish it that it will be any more interesting or better than this.”
Artists, he has come to learn, are not always the best judges of their own work. Those who tend to be perfectionists — as Briel admittedly is — are particularly difficult on their own paintings. Yet, looking back, he said the stroke arrived at a time that he was “really at the top of my game as far as technical ability. I think the paintings I did in 2012 were probably the best paintings I’ve ever done.”
It has been a long road back for Briel — he likens it to having to “crawl through the mud to try to find a way to make things better” — and there is still a distance to travel, but he is getting there.
“I’m just going to have to be very patient with myself and be willing to be a participant in the process,” he said. “That’s really the way the whole recovery has gone so far: a lot of setbacks and lots of discouragement and some depression. But I just had to adjust myself to what is and change the things I can and hope for the wisdom to know what I can do and what I can’t. I’ve read about artists who’ve had other health issues and had to do some pretty extraordinary things to get back to painting.”
He intends to be among that group.