Conflicted artist

Joshua Risner's nervous brush


Joshua Risner

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.


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