Reinhardt's Portrait

Professor Paints Historic Worcester Courthouse Portrait

March 28, 2014
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On March 6, the Worcester Courthouse’s first-ever portrait of a female judge was unveiled, and the artist, HUA adjunct professor Jo Ellen Reinhardt, was on hand for the presentation and to say a few words about her subject, retired judge Martha Grace.

Reinhardt, who teaches figure drawing in C-Term, came to WPI five years ago after talking with associate dean Kris Boudreau about teaching art classes at WPI. She says portrait work is her passion because it allows her to capture both a person’s outward appearance and inner personality.Reinhardt’s process of painting Judge Grace’s portrait took months.

Grace received Reinhardt’s name along with several recommended portrait artists; the two spoke several times before meeting last June to begin the process of finding the right tone and the right pose for the portrait that now hangs in Courtroom 4 of Worcester Juvenile Court. Grace was the first woman to be appointed chief justice of the Massachusetts juvenile court system and spent many years throughout her career in the Worcester court. She retired in 2009.

Reinhardt and Grace discussed their ideas and went through a couple of photo sessions before narrowing down the perfect image. The two thought a straight-on portrait represented Grace’s role in presiding over a courthouse, and Reinhardt also wanted it to bring in Grace’s personality and natural beauty.

Capturing the essence of a person with simple tools like paint, pencil, and paper is a task Reinhardt wants her students to master. And teaching figure drawing to detail-oriented engineers isn’t as far-fetched as some might think, she says. “I teach figure drawing in a very technical way,” says Reinhardt. “There’s lots of measuring and comparing angles and different approaches to drawing a figure.”

I teach figure drawing in a very technical way
Ellen Reinhardt

Many of Reinhardt’s first-time students at WPI, at her Salisbury House studio, or in her classes at the Worcester Art Museum have little or no experience drawing. “Most of them have only picked up a pencil for equations and they surprise themselves,” she says.

Reinhardt’s art experience is lengthy and shows the breadth of her influences. Raised in Worcester, she earned her fine arts degree from Westfield State, went on to study scientific and technical illustration, and worked as a commercial artist for a while. But neither was her true calling. “I’ve always been a fine artist at heart,” she says.

A resurgence in classical art brought Reinhardt’s attention to the methods used by the masters. She studied atelier, a small, more intensive form of learning art. “It’s a French term that means ‘workshop’” she says, and she spent two years studying with an atelier school in Providence. “I was learning it backwards in a way,” says Reinhardt, but the class helped her understand why she did certain things and gave her insight to what to look for while she is composing a figure drawing.

Always a still-life artist, her resulting work became focused on portraits, and changed her mediums, as well. “I work mostly in oils now,” she says. “I became fascinated by portraits and really started practicing my skills as a portrait artist.”

Reinhardt passes the responsibility of capturing a subject correctly to her students. Although her students might be surprised by the heavy workload, learning how to draw figures requires patience and focus that is only gained by working slowly. “You have to slow yourself down,” she says of the process. “It’s peaceful once you get into a rhythm.”

The process is unique. “You are with that person all day,” Reinhardt says of working for months with a portrait. Reinhardt, who says she feels blessed to know Grace, finished the portrait last fall.

“My idea is that I want a portrait to be more than an image of the person,” she says. “I wanted to bring out her characteristics and qualities, so I could incorporate who she is into this portrait. This is a piece of history.”

- BY JULIA QUINN-SZCESUIL

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