August fifth, 2019, Pearson International airport. I was waiting impatiently to finally board my twice-delayed flight to New York when my phone began to ring. On the other end was a quiet woman who spoke quickly as she fumbled her way to her offer of employment. Apparently, she was the “ambassador” for a very unusual American master portrait artist. I was recommended through a series of mutual friends. She wanted me to drop everything I was doing and join her for a few days so that I could document what she was calling “the experience of a lifetime.” I was intrigued.
This mysterious caller—better known as Rebecca Ethan as I would come to find out—didn’t give me much information on the job or what I would actually be documenting. Nor did she give me any time to react before she offered me triple my regular rate and a contract was waiting if I accepted. How could I say no? I didn’t know it then, but that job would turn out to be one of the most illuminating experiences of my life. I was to meet an eccentric, talented portrait artist who pulled back the veil on modern high society and what it meant to be truly well connected.
Rebecca had a contract waiting for me in my email the following day, which included a non-disclosure agreement as well as a set of instructions on how to board the private jet that would be waiting at Buttonville Municipal Airport to fly us down to San Antonio. I had never been to Texas, but when Rebecca met me she let me know we wouldn’t be in Texas for very long. We were flying down to meet master portrait artist Kevin Saunders and have his studio equipment and mobile showroom loaded onto the plane. Then we would be making a quick return flight to Toronto that evening so that they could set up for something they were colloquially called “The Grand Ol’ Portrait Party.”
When I boarded the Bombardier Global jet, I used the time with Rebecca to focus on asking her more about herself and the coming week. It turned out that Rebecca was the daughter of a wealthy Quebec real estate agent who was steeped in art history and gathered a group of wealthy, well-connected Torontonians together to book a portrait artist for four days of unlimited portrait sessions. Why? Because she had a cousin who lived in San Antonio that had been telling her about this up-and-coming artist, Kevin Saunders, who was going to take the world by storm. Kevin was, according to her, one of those rare talents that only comes around every few centuries — and she wasn’t wrong. Canadians had seen Yousuf Karsh, after all, so they knew what they saw in Kevin.
The very definition of a modern Renaissance man, Kevin dropped out of high school to drive transport trucks cross country, then studied anatomy in college—intending to become a doctor—before abandoning that goal to become an Olympic sailing hopeful and later orchestral musician. Kevin had transitioned into portrait photography later in life after designing and selling an airplane elevator concept to Boeing for 1.5 million and building a custom luxury bicycle brand. Bored with his business pursuits, he turned his focus towards his lifelong love of portrait artistry and set a goal for himself to become this century’s, Yousef Karsh. He spent many years honing his craft.
Kevin quickly rose to prominence in the southern United States at the beginning of the pandemic and produced a number of grand-scale fine arts portraits for larger than life American business personalities like Henry Cisneros, Paula Gold-Williams, David Bohne, Gordon Hartman, Ben Peavy, and even former congressman’s Will Hurd and Charlie Gonzalez. That came after this trip and Rebecca and her cousin knew something I didn’t. I wanted to discover why. At least that’s what I found myself wondering as Kevin boarded the plane.
An older, yet strong-looking man of sixty-four, Kevin had the typical white hair of a man his age but the eyes of someone much younger. I’ll never forget that piercing first glance he shot my way as if he already knew me. When he reached out to shake my hand I instantly knew I had met a unique person.
Kevin wanted to begin our conversation by asking me about myself and my body of work before he transitioned into his own artistry and philosophy on how he captures an amazing portrait. “If I’m that person who is trusted to tell your story in a portrait so it lives on for generations,” he told me, “ then I must be able to create a movie with one frame. My portraits are more than just art to adore one’s ancestral home. If a family is significant enough to have a story to live on in a legacy—and you and I know most don’t—then who goes into that story becomes part of an intergenerational story.” That was the main idea behind this trip, and the reason why so many wealthy families and individuals took Rebecca at her word when she said, “Trust me, this guy is going places”.
I saw Kevin two days later when he showed me around his mobile portrait studio. Though it was just set up in a quiet rented space in North York, the place had a warmth and calmness that was unusual for portrait studios. It also had this vibrant energy that made me smile. Kevin told me that people can feel the energy in a place and he used that to his advantage, making sure to set the tone of a session before his clients walked through his door.
The equipment was astonishingly professional, beyond anything I thought would have been necessary for a portrait shoot. There were vintage movie lights like one would see from the ’40s and ‘50s as well as a big “view camera” that seemed like something out of Star Trek. Everything seemed complicated, but when Kevin showed me how it worked, it was incredibly simple. “It is the same in practice as the big wooden cameras 100 years ago,” Kevin said, “but it has a 150-megapixel sensor instead of an 11 x 14-inch piece of film.” I’d never seen anything like it.
I’ve sat in on many “photoshoots” and what I saw Kevin do in a portrait session was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Kevin was looking at the subjects from various angles while the subjects were studying the portraits and they were carrying on a conversation. This went on for a half-hour or 45 minutes, and then there seemed to be a “perfect time” when the subjects seemed ready to step in front of the camera.
I think this is what truly made him the best. The entire process of capturing portraits was truly amazing to watch unfold. I was used to seeing photographers take hundreds of photos in a photoshoot and while Kevin used a camera, it was simply the tool he used to capture the information he gleaned from studying his clients beforehand. He somehow was composing his portraits in advance and guiding the subjects to give him the emotions he needed to project a likeness onto a portrait print.
After I left the portrait shoot, I didn’t see Kevin again until I was flying back to Texas two months later with Rebecca to pick up the portraits. When I finally got to Kevin’s studio, I had the opportunity to see what he did with his off-site artistry. While it took a very small amount of time to create the original photographs back in Toronto, Kevin spent days—and in some cases—weeks doing highly detailed and precise artistry to produce a portrait that was truly stunning.
Kevin showed me a few of his trade secrets, and I can see why he mentioned his study of anatomy. Kevin took the imperfections that clients wanted to have fixed and performed a kind of digital alchemy that was incredible. I got to see the “before” and “after” and when I saw the finished product for Rebecca, my jaw dropped. Kevin said, “If I were to paint you, I wouldn’t put these details into the painting, so if I’m painting with light, I’ll use the same interpretation and you get to choose the way you wish to be remembered.” What struck me was the fact that the final images didn’t look “photoshopped” but just looked “right.”
That may be his best-kept trade secret. He uses his talent and previous life experience preparing to become a doctor to alter his portraits in such a way that the figures portrayed come to life. This was when I realized he was reviving a human tradition that has fallen away as we’ve modernized — the fine arts portrait.
Kevin’s work is visible at www.kgsstudios.com where you can view his entire portfolio.
‘Plein Air’ by Festival of the Arts has artists all over downtown Grand Rapids this weekend
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Festival of the Arts, an annual event that happens in downtown Grand Rapids, won’t be happening in the traditional sense this year, but the organizers behind the beloved event have an incredible experience nonetheless planned for this weekend.
Their Plein Air event will see over 100 artists, and a handful of musicians, creating and performing all over the city Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s great to be out here with this weather and to see all the people up and down Monroe Center,” David Abbott, executive director of the Festival of the Arts, told FOX 17 Friday afternoon.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled to try and do something completely different this year.”
There won’t be the typical food tents and vendors we’ve come to expect from the Festival. Instead, folks are encouraged to stop by a downtown restaurant while enjoying a smattering of public art.
“Plein Air is kind of short for En Plein Air, which is a French term for painting in the outdoors,” Abbott explained.
“We are so very proud of our downtown Grand Rapids community, so we wanted to bring in our artists to paint the monuments, to paint the activity that’s going up and down our streets.”
Over 100 artists will be spread all over the downtown area, the West Side of the city, and near Studio Park. There will also be musicians performing around the city Saturday.
And this year, you will get the chance to have an intimate experience with the process of creating pieces of art— to watch as they paint different Grand Rapids locations.
Not only that, but this year you will also be able to purchase prints of the pieces while they’re being created in front of your eyes.
“You’ll be able to go online and purchase the art or purchase a digital copy of the art,” Abbott said.
“The majority of that money all goes to the artists, and artists right now need an opportunity to sell more of their work. “
You can find more information about purchasing copies of the paintings you see on the Festival of the Arts website.
The full schedule includes:
Wednesday, June 2, 6 – 8:30 p.m. Richmond Park, 1101 Richmond St NW.
Thursday, June 3, 6 – 8:30 p.m. Riverside Park, 2001 Monroe Avenue NW.
Friday, June 4, 6 – 8:30 p.m. McKay Jaycee Park, 2531 Kalamazoo Ave SE.
Festival merchandise may be purchased here.
‘It’s An Often Underestimated Component Of The Arts’: Tomás Doncker On ‘World Environment Day’ Festival Ft. Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, Ben Harper – American Blues Scene
On Friday, June 4, 2021 at 3pm EST, Pathway to Paris, 350.org, and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) North America Region will come together for a virtual festival to celebrate our planet in honor of World Environment Day — the United Nation’s flagship day for the environment. As we move into a new era of global recovery, this year’s central theme is the protection of our ecosystems and restoring our relationship with nature.
“It is critical that we consider the urgent needs of our planet as we transition back into living our lives and performing concerts again after a year of global quarantining and isolation,” Jesse Paris Smith, co-founder of Pathway to Paris, said in a statement. “We simply cannot go back to the way things were before. So much has been lost due to Covid, an immeasurable amount, and all the while, the climate crisis did not go away; it has always been there underneath the surface, existing every day amongst all of the other destruction and suffering. As we rebuild our world, we must make changes greater than ever before, and transition into a new era which favors our natural and wild places, and focuses deeply on protection and preservation. Global collaborations like this event provide healing and communication during such a challenging time, and these new connections must continue and lead to great change, new ideas, ambitious action, and true global renewal.”
Patti Smith adding,“It’s important for us to work together to continuously draw attention to the needs of our suffering planet.”
World Environment Day will include presentations from environmentalists such as 350.org founder Bill McKibben, Pennie Opal Plant, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The concert will feature international performances from Patti Smith, Ben Harper, Michael Stipe, Dave Matthews, Rocky Dawuni, Jack Johnson, Yury Revich, Priya Darshini, Jordan Sanchez, Rima Fujita, Tenzin Choegyal, Patrick Watson, Jackson Smith, and words and music from Pathway to Paris founders Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon.
Last but certainly not least, singer-songwriter/guitarist and pioneer of the Global Soul movement Tomás Doncker will be performing his rendering of the iconic Patti-penned tune “People Have The Power” — premiered on ABS. Recorded and filmed at Electric Lady Studios, Doncker will be joined by Jesse and Jackson Smith on the song and introduced by Patti herself.
“I was invited by Pathway to Paris co-founder Jesse Smith,” Doncker tells me. “As things unfolded, I was told that I was to perform a stripped down acoustic version of my arrangement of ‘People Have The Power’ with her and her brother (killer guitarist Jackson Smith), live at Electric Lady Studios. Without question one of the greatest experiences (musically, or otherwise), in my life. I am honored, humbled, and eternally grateful to be in service of our Mother Earth with these beautiful people.”
As a lifelong fan of Patti’s work, Doncker recalls catching her at CBGB way back when. But he never thought to do an arrangement of any of her songs until last year, in light of certain events. He heard “People Have The Power” in more of a soulful context, so while he was trying to work out his own version he got stuck by the second verse. He set it aside, until mid-November when he was introduced to Patti’s daughter, Jesse, who he shared his story with. Before he knew it, he was on FaceTime with Patti, who told him to write his own words so that he could sing it in his own voice.
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The song’s meaning expands and intensifies throughout every season of life, serving as what Doncker also considers a rallying cry to all of us to step up in support of this planet we call home. “I mean it’s one of the ‘All-Time Great Tunes,’ isn’t it? To me it’s the perfect all-purpose anthem for our times, a reminder that the core commonality we share beyond socio-political barriers is this planet. As James Brown once said: ‘Get up, get into it, get involved.’
“If we all were just a little bit more considerate, and respectful of the environment (and each other), just think of how much better our collective existence could be. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a huge honor and privilege to be of service in raising awareness. I feel it’s an often underestimated component of the arts in general to shake folks up, to motivate them towards positive change.”
Doncker’s mind was both influenced and expanded early on by the crew of brilliant artists and writer with whom Patti associated: William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard. “The real New York culture gang. In fact, my partner at True Groove Records Marla Mase’s ‘Go to monologue’ for her acting auditions was a monologue from Cowboy Mouth, which Patti co-wrote with Sam Shepard. I can remember a summer job I had selling t-shirts at the Dr. Pepper Music Festival (held in Central Park), during my senior year of high school. I made sure to bring a red rose to try and give her in-between songs. Needless to say I wasn’t the only person who thought to bring a rose for Patti. I could go on, but in short, she is made of Love, Light, and Positive Power. All of our lives are better because of her presence.
“It is said that you can really see who a person is through their children. That’s absolutely true in this case. Both of Patti’s children — her brilliant and beautiful daughter Jesse (who of course is spearheading this event) and her badass guitar-slinging son Jackson — are two of the finest, most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, and become friends with. It was like we had been on the road playing together for years, AND at Jimi Hendrix’s legendary Electric Lady Studios, no less!”
American Blues Scene has come on board as a streaming partner for this important event. Please join us live on June 4th at 3pm EST as we collaborate together to build a better world. You can stream via ABS’s Facebook, Pathway to Paris, , or UNEP.
New Orleans Saints Will Change Fan Experience in 2021 and Hold Casting Calls for Three Entertainment Teams – Sports Illustrated New Orleans Saints News, Analysis and More
As things look to return to normal across the NFL, more signs keep pointing to the progress and anticipation of that reality becoming true. On Friday, the Saints are announcing a casting call for their 2021 entertainment team.
This year comes with some new twists, as there will be auditions for three different dynamic groups that will help build on the team’s best fan experience awards they’ve been given for the past several years. The first group encompasses the Saintsations, which is the official dance team of the Saints. The second group is a fan engagement team called the Black & Gold Patrol. Finally, there’s a new team of cheerleaders that will be comprised of multi-talented entertainers to enhance the fan experience.
All three groups will collaborate and interact throughout the season, and specific talents the team will be looking for include both female and male dancers, running and standing tumblers, cheerleaders, and stunters.
“Our fans are eager to get back into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and we want every facet of the game experience to be ready for them,” said Saints President Dennis Lauscha.
“We’re always thinking of new ways that we can provide the best game day experience in the NFL. Expanding our entertainment teams to include cheerleaders and tumblers will bring even more energy and excitement to game day, and add to our legendary Dome Field Advantage.”
The Saints had a co-ed squad when the franchise started in 1967. Back then, the games were played in the old Tulane Stadium. The squad existed the entire time and went by the Saintsations, but was disbanded in 1998. Nearly 20 years later, 25-year-old Jessie Hernandez made some history back in 2018 when he joined the Saintsations as a dancer.
The goal for the Saints is to further the game day experience for fans, and over the years, New Orleans has looked at a variety of new ways to keep fans engaged off the field.
Those interested will have until 5 PM CT on Thursday, June 17 to register. The application link can be found here after the formal announcement is made. Preliminary auditions will be held the Smoothie King Center on Friday, June 18 starting at 5 PM.
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