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Portraits R Us : Where Artistic Vision Meets a Steady Paycheck

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sure David Hockney is a great artist, but just try and get him to paint a portrait of you in the arms of Elvis.

For Lawrence Williams, it’s no problem.

“We had one woman who wanted to be painted with Elvis embracing her, so she got it,” said the feisty Williams, 79, who lords over a veritable portrait factory in Burbank that turns out more than 3,500 paintings a year.

Lorraine Strieby, who paints at her home in Chatsworth, had a customer who wanted his three dogs, all of whom had gone on to their reward, brought together again in a group portrait as a gift for his wife.

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“When she saw it she cried,” said Strieby, who worked from three separate photographs to produce the painting. “But she wanted a change. One of the photos was from when the dog was quite old and not looking great. The woman asked me to change his expression.

“No problem.”

Williams, Strieby and Ilene Woods--who advertises her service as “Portraits by Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ ” because she was the voice of Cinderella in the 1950 animated film--are San Fernando Valley artists who make their living, or at least an extra income, by painting portraits to order.

“People might look down on portrait painters as artists,” said Williams, who has six full-time painters on staff to keep up with the demand, “but this takes a lot of skill, a lot of craftsmanship.

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“And besides, I don’t feel like starving.”

Williams doesn’t have any illusions about his skills. In one corner of his studio, above an animal hospital, sits his interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” leaning against the wall. In the Williams version, the apostles are in a somewhat different order at the table and they are sitting in different poses.

“I think it’s an improvement,” he said, nodding sagely. “In mine, you can really see the faces.”

There are faces to be seen all over Williams’ vast studio, some of which are instantly recognizable--Winston Churchill, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Michael Jackson and religious leaders such as Pope John Paul II and Roger Mahony both as archbishop and cardinal. The Catholic market is an especially important one for Williams. In numerous parish offices and Catholic schools in Southern California, Williams’ portraits of Mahony, done from photographs like most of Williams’ work, can be seen on prominent view.

Indeed, when Mahony was made a cardinal, it was a major business opportunity for Williams. “That guy Williams bugged the hell out of us to get a photo of the cardinal when it happened,” said Bill Rivera, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “He said he had to have one that showed the new robes.”

But most of the portraits stacked around Williams’ studio are of everyday people--beauty queens with crowns upon their heads, young men in uniform, insurance executives with folded white handkerchiefs in their pockets, children with cheeks so rosy that even Norman Rockwell might have thought them too wholesome.

Williams, who has one towel draped around his neck and another tucked into his waistband so that he always has a place to wipe off his hands as he paints, has made his living painting portraits since about 1930.

“I dropped out of law school,” he said, shaking his head. “The girls got to me.”

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He had only taken a few art courses at a museum in Boston, his hometown, but he was able to sell portraits there and later in New York and Chicago before settling in Los Angeles in 1940. With his studio on Sunset Boulevard near the famed Mocambo and Trocadero nightclubs, he had a clientele that included several celebrities. Liberace was one of them.

“The guy had big mitts,” Williams said, gesturing with his hands. “No wonder he could play the piano.”

In the early 1950s, Williams moved to the Burbank space, where the labyrinth of rooms is now filled with stacks of frames, canvases and painting materials. But he doesn’t worry much about the appearance of his studio--almost all of his business is now wholesale.

“I deal with about 400 photography studios all over the country,” he said. These studios offer their customers the opportunity to have a photo made into an oil painting. If the customer buys the service, the photo is sent to Williams.

“I just got one from a new studio in Ironwood, Mich.,” he said. “It’s of a woman who died a few days ago. The family wants a portrait of her.”

He and his crew have turned out several paintings commissioned for public display. For Southern California Gas Co., they did a series of U.S. Presidents, and for several states they did court justices. Williams did the official Rose Bowl Queen portraits for almost 20 years (in exchange for tickets to the game and parade) and the presidents of Pepperdine University.

For most of his portraits, Williams’ crew rephotographs a picture of the subject and enlarges it to the size of the painting. Then it’s lightened with bleach so that only a faint outline of the picture shows. He or one of his staff then paints in colors and shading.

He promises delivery in 30 days.

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Williams said the process results in a pleasing portrait because his staff painters are experienced artists. But he would not allow his staffers, who punch a time clock, to be interviewed.

“It’s my studio--why should I build them up?” he asked.

Retirement is another subject he doesn’t like.

“I’ll retire,” he said, “when I’m horizontal.”

If Williams is the McDonald’s of the portrait business, then Strieby and Wood are the corner diner. Both took up painting as an avocation in their middle years and find the work personally gratifying.

“My first commission was from a woman who wanted to surprise her parents with a portrait for their anniversary,” said Woods, who lives in Calabasas. She painted the portrait from a photograph the daughter provided.

“When they first saw the painting, they cried. The way they felt was worth a million dollars to me.”

Strieby, who paints in a room with a view of a spacious, woodsy back yard, strives to make her potential customers comfortable from the beginning. She has several paintings of celebrities--John Wayne and Sophia Loren, for example--hanging in the light-filled family room, near her easel.

“People like to see something familiar when they come in,” said Strieby, who painted the celebrities for practice from magazine or publicity shots. “It gives them a chance to see what I’ve done with people they recognize.”

Strieby has wanted to be an artist since she was 6 years old, “but you need to make money in this world,” she said. She earned business degrees from West Virginia State University and Cal State Northridge, and she and her husband bought and developed several pieces of real estate over the years. They operated businesses ranging from a beauty parlor to an apartment house.

“We got to the point where I could finally devote some time to art,” she said. About 10 years ago Strieby began taking classes at CSUN and from private teachers. She also combined pleasure travel with training. On one wall is a self-portrait she did in Xian, China, during the time she studied with a water colorist there.

When Strieby began doing portraits on commission, about six years ago, her business training came in handy.

“It helped me with marketing and promotion,” Strieby said. “I knew how to put together a resume, the importance of an artist’s statement to hand out to people, how to position myself in the Yellow Pages.

“A lot of artists don’t bother with the Yellow Pages, but it brings me a lot of business,” she said. “Of course, the best referrals come from past customers.”

She works exclusively from photographs and her prices range from $150 to about $500, depending on the size of the portrait and the number of subjects. One of her specialties is pets.

“Pets are an important part of the business,” she said. “It’s really not all that different than doing a person, just more hair.”

Woods was a child singer in the 1940s and, by the time she was 15, had her own radio show on ABC.

“I was on at 11:15 p.m. five nights a week,” said Woods, sitting in the living room of her Calabasas home. “

During her early career, Woods sang for two Presidents--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman--and on numerous radio series. In 1948, as a favor to songwriters Oliver Wallace and Paul J. Smith, she made a demo tape of songs they had written on spec for the proposed Disney production of “Cinderella.”

“Walt Disney bought the songs and they wanted the singer, too,” she said.

Woods, who is married to drummer Ed Shaughnessy--he was with the “Tonight Show” band for Johnny Carson’s entire tenure--quit show business in the early 1960s to raise their family. In 1974, with their children almost grown, Shaughnessy bought her a box of paints and urged her to pursue her longtime interest. Except for taking classes with one teacher, Woods was self-taught.

“My son Jim urged me to start doing portraits,” Woods said. “He was a very talented artist himself. We lost him eight years ago when he was 18.”

Woods paints in Jim’s room, which eight years after his death is still stocked with his drawings, books and posters.

“I wish he could see what I am doing now,” she said.

In five years in business as a portrait artist, Woods has had some unusual requests, the most macabre coming from a couple who wanted a group portrait of their three children, including one who had died two years before. They had a photo of the child and wanted Woods to age his looks two years.

“That was one I had to tell them I just could not do,” she said.

Woods, whose fee starts at $250, gets numerous requests to paint portraits of children. She believes this is at least partially because of her slogan.

“That was Ed’s idea,” she said with a laugh. “He’s the promoter in the family. And the gimmick worked. Parents seem to like the idea they can say their child’s portrait was done by ‘Cinderella.’ ”


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