A Portrait Worth A Thousand Words

West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman, who is accustomed to creating vivid literary images in poems, short stories and children’s books, had the tables turned when he was asked to pose for a portrait painted by master artist Yan Sun.

Paintings by Sun and his wife, Hong Yin, are featured in the Studio Gallery of Artworks Around Town at the Centre Market in Wheeling this month. Natives of China, they are members of the art faculty at Muskingum University in New Concord.

Sun, who is an internationally famous painter, agreed to donate his time and talent to create a portrait in oils during Artworks’ Gallery Hop Friday, Sept.7. Artworks officials conducted a silent auction for the portrait painting opportunity with proceeds from the bidding going to the gallery.

Marilyn Hughey Phillis, an Artworks member from Wheeling and internationally known artist in her own right, put together the winning bid package. She selected Harshman, a Wheeling resident, because she thought the state’s new poet laureate should have a portrait painted.

Harshman, who never sat for a portrait previously, agreed gamely and posed on a chair in the Studio Gallery while onlookers filled the gallery space. After brief introductory remarks, Sun set to work. The rapt audience, including many fellow artists, watched intently as the master painter went about his artistic endeavor.

The atmosphere in the gallery was hushed, reverential in tone, as audience members observed Sun take a blank canvas and transform it, step by step, into an oil painting capturing the essence of Harshman’s physical being.

They watched, in awe and admiration, as Sun produced a finished portrait in slightly over an hour.

From the initial brush strokes, when Sun outlined an image of his subject’s head and added simple lines to represent the poet’s eyes, observers could see Harshman’s image on the canvas. With each deliberate stroke and addition of delicate detail, Harshman’s features came to life, emerging step by step.

Onlookers observed Sun’s technique, with each flowing brush stroke reminding many of the creation of Chinese written characters. The artist worked quickly, but precisely, moving from one portion of the canvas to another, allowing the oil to dry partially before adding more detail to a particular area of the portrait.

After finishing his painting, Sun explained his practice of using oil paints, mixed with mineral spirits. He said that after the painting dries completely in three months, he will add a protective coating before the portrait is presented to Harshman.

Talking about the experience, Sun remarked that Harshman’s pale features and clothing posed a challenge, then the artist quipped that he was glad for a window in the gallery wall which allowed for the creation of contrast in the background of the painting.

Harshman will receive the portrait to display as he sees fit. The poet hasn’t written a poem about the experience … yet. “I suppose I should,” he mused.

Artworks representatives said Sun’s portraits and painting often sell for many thousands of dollars. Sun has painted portraits of many prominent celebrities including former astronaut and U.S. senator John Glenn and his wife, Annie. The artist has produced a series of award-winning paintings of ballerinas and is well known for his portraits of Native Americans.

Sun grew up in an intellectual household in China at the time of the “Cultural Revolution.” After being sent as a teenager to work on a farm and in coal mines, he succeeded finally in getting an art education. He earned degrees at Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou, at Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts and Texas A&M University.

Presently a professor of art and gallery director at Muskingum, Sun has received numerous honors for his work and his devotion to the community.

His wife, Yin, also attended Northwest Normal University and earned degrees at Xi’an Academy of Fine Art and Texas A&M. She is now an assistant professor of art at Muskingum.