Last fall, Joshua Risner spent a lot of days and nights in a strange dialogue with Malcolm X. At times, their faces were inches apart.
“I thought he would be pissed off if he knew I was the one painting him,” Risner said. “But I have to believe that if he had talked to me, he might not have.”
Risner, 42, is the State Capitol artist commissioned by Lansing Community College to paint a life-size portrait of the human rights leader who spent much of his youth in Lansing. The painting will be unveiled at its permanent home, the lobby of the Gannon Building, in a ceremony 11:30 a.m. Thursday.
Last week, Risner was every inch the tortured artist. He squirmed with anxiety, wondering if he should have accepted the commission in the first place.
“I might fit that perfect stereotype — middle aged white guy with a beard, a hipster who probably has everything going for him in some ways,” he said. “But maybe I am the right person. I don’t know.”
Last Thursday, he came to LCC to see it in a frame for the first time and couldn’t deny the results.
“That painting has something to it that’s alive,” he said. “There’s something else there that I didn’t necessarily have anything to do with.”
Some people who were close to Malcolm X agreed.
Deborah Jones, Malcolm X’s niece, saw an image of the painting last week. She will be at the unveiling.
“Wow. It is powerful,” she said.
Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, was also impressed.
“It’s a beautiful portrait,” Shabazz said. “He really did a great job on this.”
The image poses X with all dignity of an official portrait of a president or governor, against a fiery, abstracted field of orange-red, intended to suggest a mosque.
State Capitol artist Joshua Risner's 60-inch by 40-inch portrait of Malcolm X, commissioned by Lansing Community College, will go on permanent display at LCC's Gannon Building Thursday. City Pulse’s Feb. 27 cover story delves into Malcolm X’s life in Lansing.
Since Risner joined the state Capitol staff three years ago, he has painted portraits of two 19th-century governors, mutton-chopped Charles Croswell and Lincolnesque Kinsley S. Bingham.
Most recently, Risner painted an official portrait of the state’s first elected African-American lawmaker, William Webb Ferguson, a determined-looking young man with a stovepipe hat and a luminous gaze.
The portrait got the attention of LCC President Brent Knight, who has been planning for years to memorialize Malcolm X in a major way on campus.
Knight told Risner he wanted a “formal, serious” portrait with a “studied look.”
“Beyond that, it was up to him to do the rest,” Knight said. “It’s a magnificent job. It may well be the finest oil portrait of Malcolm X in the nation.”
Risner knew it was a unique commission, but he squirmed from the start.
He wondered how he would connect with a subject that seemed so distant from his own experience.
He recalled the image of Malcolm X appearing on T-shirts and other graphic expressions of hip-hop culture that reached his small, “very white high school,” in Greenwich, Ohio, in the 1990s.
“Some kids were wearing it because it was cool — they had no idea why,” he said. “We were living the great life. We had no connection to the ideas that generated those images.”
Since graduating, Risner worked in graphic arts, but eventually he tiredof it and went back to school to study oil painting. He was happy to get the state Capitol job, but he’s relatively new to portraiture. A close encounter with Malcolm X, he feared, would be a complete identity suck.
“It feels like he’s really going to take over,” Risner said. “It feels like you have nothing to give.”
But Knight urged him to take the commission.
Many of Risner’s own paintings feature one or two figures, realistically rendered, in a mysterious, often bleak setting — trees without leaves, muddy roads, fading light.
“Life is a mixture of abstract and specific, emotion and reason. My art has always been a way of trying to wrestle with that.”
In an echo of his own allegory paintings, Risner placed Malcolm X in a vast, mysterious space that is open to interpretation.
Ilyasah Shabazz identified it instantly as the Cairo mosque (the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha) where her father prayed on his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964.
“It’s a spectacular background,” Shabazz said.
Risner kept the background abstract on purpose.
“Red sometimes seems like hell, a place of rage and anger, but there’s so much light coming from there too,” he said. “This glow from the back is like going towards something better, yet it’s red, and you’re not quite sure how to see that.”
The human figures, in Risner's gallery work or in official work such as the Malcolm X portrait, are always realistically rendered.
“I’m trying to show respect to humanity, to people, respect their identity,” he said.
Getting the skin tone right was a sensitive matter. Malcolm X mentions his lighter skin tone several times in his autobiography. There are many black and white reference photos of Malcolm X but few color ones.
“I’m trying to do it accurately, without any agenda, but I’m also hyper-aware of how that can be taken, because other people might assume I have an agenda,” Risner said.
Despite his initial doubts about the project, Risner is amazed at the one-of-a-kind encounter life threw his way.
“Sometimes when I go back and see a painting I’ve done, I’m not always impressed,” Risner said. “This one — I have no idea how I did that and I don’t think I could do it again.”
Malcolm X Portrait Unveiling
11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
College Gannon Building
422 N. Washington Square, Lansing