Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ironwoman Portrait - A Progression

Mickie Shapiro at 74!

On May first I received an email from actress Spencer Kayden exclaiming
"I just stumbled upon your blog in such a random way. My mother is a triathlete and her 75th birthday is coming up in June. My brothers and I were thinking about getting her a piece of original art that is somehow Ironman related (since that's pretty much what she eats, sleeps, and breathes). So I was googling "triathlon paintings" and it led me to your posting about your triathlon results last year."

Spencer was referring to my Danskin Women's Triathlon  Serendipitous don't you think? We chatted back and forth via email and I told Spencer that not only could I do a commission of her mother Mickie Shapiro crossing the finish, but I'd love to incorporate personal ephemera and family memorabilia. 

What an opportunity for me, the beginner triathlete, to be able to work on a portrait for this AMAZING accomplished Ironwoman. Ironman, incase you didn't know, is a 2.4-mile open water swim, a 112-mile bike race and a full marathon, 26.2 miles - back to back! Shapiro says that other than being a dancer when she was a young woman, she did not really maintain an active lifestyle. She told reporters that Spencer decided to become a long distance runner when she was very young and that Mickie started running with her daughter and got hooked! When an injury led Mickie to focus her energy on swimming, she figured she had two of the three of a triathlon down pat. She bought a bike, started training, and the rest is history. Since then Mickie has done hundreds of races in running and triathlon and when she was 60 she celebrated her birthday doing IronMan Hawaii!

personal ephemera sent by Mickie's kids

Soon after I agreed to create Mickie's portrait, I started receiving family memorabilia from Spencer and her brothers which I hand painted with fluid acrylics. Brother Michael Almereyda shared a copy of his screenplay for his film Hamlet with Ethan Hawke and Archaeologist Kenneth D.S. Lapatin sent along magazine articles and a book on Minoan antiquities. Brother Danny was wiling to part with amazing ORIGINAL artwork by his daughters Helena and Sonia Rose (he tried to send me color copies but I told him I MUST have the originals, sorry Danny!)

photo of Mickie crossing the finish in Austria

composite photoshop layered file created on my computer

first step by hand - sketch on the birch panel

I started with photos of Mickie crossing the finish that Spencer provided. When Mickie left her house to head for her race, Spencer convinced a neighbor to head over to her house, grab some photos off the mantel, scan them and email them to me. EVERYONE has been "in" on this surprise gift. I worked with the photos in Photoshop to simplify the background, eliminate the extra people, enlarge Mickie (after all, she is larger than life!)  and make myself a composite to sketch from. Spencer had said she really liked my flowers and background patterns and we agreed to use these instead of logos to bracket her at the finish line. 

Such a cutie! Spencer's son sporting his IronMickie T-shirt

The IronMickie logo comes from a T-shirt that was designed for Mickie by her family and I loved it so much I had to work it in! I thought it was really clever and used it instead of the Ironman header from the race photo. Another way to personalize the art.

underpainting in fluid acrylic on cradled birch

"gallery wrap" means running the collage around the edges

After the sketch came the underpainting, which I use to establish colors and values. This portrait is on a cradled birch panel, so I am running the artwork around the edges to create a gallery wrap effect. The size of this piece is 16x20 and it was important to the family to see her feet crossing the finish. At these proportions, that makes the face about the size of a half dollar. A real challenge! And remember, I never cut and only tear my papers, so those eyes and eyebrows are going to be difficult.

detail of the left hand side

Working in something from all of Mickie's kids and grandkids was my goal. I had to add a photo of Rosie, Mickie's dog to the dark background behind her when Spencer realized she had not been represented. And Danny had to email me Sonia's signature when I realized I accidentally covered it over in the collage process (either that or it's on the floor of my studio somewhere, Sorry Danny!)

Mickie by Leonard Ortiz

face detail

This has been an exciting project to work on, I saved the most fun for last... the face! it's hard enough to capture a likeness of a person when working actual size, let alone working small, from references that are even smaller. I'm not one to back away from a challenge though!

I have also enjoyed emailing and getting to know Spencer over the past few months and we both seem to have a similar sense of humor. Some late nights and afternoons we have just emailed back and forth about things unrelated to the portrait. She was super supportive of my first Olympic triathlon results a few weeks ago and shared with me about the "chocolate diamonds" she got to borrow along with a designer gown for an awards show or something very "Hollywood."

IronMickie complete! outside the door of my studio

Thank you for the opportunity to share this portrait in progress with you. Spencer returns to LA from NYC the end of the month. The portrait will be shipped to LA and presented to Mickie by her kids in California. I'll let you know how it is received, but here are the very kind words I received from Spencer just this week:

"I think it's spectacular. I am in awe that you were able to do this so beautifully. Not that I doubted you could. But I know it must have been quite a challenge. I couldn't be more delighted!"

That just about says it all.


  1. Oh the personal touches are so wonderful! What a great story!

  2. This is a re-posting of this story. I took it down so as not to spoil the surprise for Mickie. But it's official, she loves the portrait, her family presented it to her on the 13th!


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