Beverly Phillips said a visit by Dr. Dever to her home studio in Poquoson was key to her process in drawing his presidential portrait, which will be unveiled Dec. 13.
When Thomas Nelson President Dr. John Dever walks through Moore Hall, he notices the portraits of his predecessors. He thinks of the relationships he’s had with each one, knowing six of the seven rather well. The other, Thomas Jenkins, was the College’s first president and retired a few years before Dever joined the Peninsula’s Community College as an English professor. But they have spoken on the phone.
“I feel like I’m now connected to everyone,” said Dever, who was named the College’s president Oct. 1, 2012, and will retire from that post at the end of December.
That connection will deepen when his presidential portrait is unveiled Dec. 13 at a reception at the Peninsula Workforce Development Center.
“It’s just part of the tradition that’s done here,” he said. “I remember that Tom Waters, who was a faculty member in painting and drawing that was a colleague during my time here, he felt it was very, very important to maintain that tradition.”
While Dever has been aware of the tradition for several years, it wasn’t until five or six years ago that he really started thinking about his portrait. And, oddly enough, it was on another walk through Moore Hall that led to the selection of former Thomas Nelson math professor Beverly Phillips to do the portrait. One of Phillips’ sisters, Susan Brooks, is an engineer at Newport News Shipyard. She was on campus for business and talking with Dever as they looked at the portraits. He remarked how much he liked the one of Dr. Shirley Pippins.
“It just stood out to me that when you looked at it, she was looking right back at you,” he said. “It wasn’t so much of a pose as it was an engagement.”
Brooks mentioned her sister was the artist. Dever knew Phillips when they both were faculty members at Thomas Nelson in the 1970s, but didn’t know she was an artist. She still was living in Poquoson, so he and the College reached out to see if she would be interested in doing his portrait. She didn’t hesitate.
“I knew John from way back when I first joined the faculty at Thomas Nelson,” said Phillips, who retired from the College in 2000 after a 22-year career. “We’d bump into each other off and on. We became friends.
“It was important to him to have someone who knew him do the painting.”
Phillips had been working on the portrait for five or six years, mostly from photos Dever and the College provided, when he announced his retirement in June. The two had gotten together a few times on campus, and she would study his face and make mental notes. He also visited her home studio.
“That was a major breakthrough,” she said, noting the extra work and effort required in a project of this magnitude.
“Portraits have to look like the person,” she said. “My still-lifes, I can make that grape look different. That peach? I can do what I want with it.
“But if you do a portrait of someone, it’s got to look like them. The proportions have to be right. … It’s very challenging. It really is, but I enjoy the challenge.”
Dever appreciates Phillips’ approach.
“She’s very, very thoughtful about what she does,” he said. “When you talk to her, she’ll talk about your cheekbones and all this stuff that I don’t see.”
There’s a reason for that.
“When you paint a portrait, you’re not just doing the surface, you have to imply the muscle structure, the bone structure underneath,” she said. “You can’t see everything in a photograph. You have to know it’s there.”
That attention to detail paid off when Dever mentioned the one thing he insisted be included.
“I said there’s a tie I want to have (in the portrait), and this tie is a kind of museum tie,” he said.
Anyone who has seen Dever at special occasions is familiar with the tie. It is adorned with medieval writing, but there’s no hidden message. The tie was gift from the Humanities department when Dever left the College in 1995 for a position at Blue Ridge Community College. He reserves it for commencement and other important events.
“I said I know it’s a little bit complicated because it’s got such a design on it, but that’s the one I really like,” he said. “I feel there’s a relationship between the College and me reflected in that tie because it was a gift from the College as I left.
“But I knew it was a challenge to actually put in.”
Phillips probably spent more time on the tie than any other part of the portrait, which measures 24 inches wide by 30 inches and is done with acrylic on linen.
“Two weeks on the tie,” she said, noting she did a lot of research and used photo after photo to make sure she got the correct look. “For one reason or another, I ended up redoing it three more times (but) finally got it done.”
Dever said he hadn’t planned to view the portrait until the unveiling, but someone brought it to campus recently and he did glance at it.
“I was very pleased with what she was able to do,” he said.
As with the tie, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
“I wanted to be sure when they did one for me, if it could be done in a way by someone that I had a relationship with and felt they had done good work before,” he said. “It was even more meaningful for me, and maybe will be meaningful for the institution, as well.”
It has been meaningful for Phillips, too. Her connections to the College go beyond her more than two decades as a professor. She began her art career at Thomas Nelson in the 1990s by taking classes. Her parents took classes here. Her son has an associate degree from the College, as does her daughter-in-law. A grandson is a current student, and her granddaughter has attended the College. Those two presidential portraits deepen her connection to the College, too.
“It makes me very proud,” she said of seeing her work as she walks through Moore Hall.
Little did Phillips know when she did Pippins’ portrait it would catch the attention of a future Thomas Nelson president. Dever didn’t know either, but he knew right away it had made an impression on him.
“When I saw the one of Shirley, I said that’s the person I’d like to do mine,” he said.