Commentary

Katie Runde: Painting Alexander Twilight

These remarks by Katie Runde, a realist oil painter based in Bristol, were delivered when her portrait of Alexander Twilight was unveiled May 5 at the Vermont Statehouse. Her paintings are at the Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury. She is also a woodwind player and candidate for priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont.

To say it has been an honor to be chosen to paint this portrait of all portraits would of course be an understatement.

Now there are far more people to thank than I have time to list now, but I have to start with David Schutz and National Life for making it possible in the first place — and the Friends of the Statehouse, who were not only helpful every step of the way, but also … friends. 

Thank you also to the Portrait Committee. I never thought I would say this, but this committee was a pure joy to work with, and this painting would not be where it is without them. They kept me abreast of historical details and also helped contribute valuable ideas that we incorporated later on into the planning process. This painting really has been a group effort. 

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this time to thank the home front — my parents who did not flinch when I decided to be an artist and my husband, James, who did not flinch when he heard I was one. 

I also need to extend a special thanks to Bill Hart for his help every single step of the way of this project. He not only helped introduce me to Twilight from a historical perspective, but also to the perfect models I needed to help Twilight come to life, including, at one point, himself. Thanks to Bob, Molly and Carmen of the Old Stone House Museum, who helped give me a feel for Twilight and his world.

There was no way to begin this portrait — or conceive of it, really — without first listening. I am a white woman, for one thing. How can I hope to understand the experience of being biracial in America without listening to those who are?

Then there was the task of getting a sense of Twilight himself, getting a feel for him, not just knowing more about him — from both historians and from the words of his students and his sermons, which still exist today.

The list of logistical hurdles to jump over to create this portrait is extensive: 

  • We have one daguerreotype of Twilight. It is small, scratchy, in black and white, and it is not showing a lot of figure. I needed three different models for Twilight’s skin tone, body type and complexion. 
  • Then I had to track down 1850s menswear during a pandemic — not a hot commodity — and travel up to Brownington to get a sense of how to fit as much of its key features as possible into one painting. 
  • One of the most important points, which I worked on extensively with the committee, was to figure out how to fit a whole life, not to mention all we need to celebrate about Twilight, into one image. 

You will notice some key elements in the portrait, including Athenian Hall, the four-story granite dormitory he helped to design and build himself. We have his students: notice the girls. Twilight ran a coeducational grammar school in the 1830s. The other student is running toward him to show how beloved Twilight was by his students. 

The committee and I had a great amount of conversation about how to fit the Second Statehouse and the landscape of Brownington in the same place, so he is holding a daguerreotype of the Statehouse he served in. 

Katie Runde's painting of Alexander Twilight, unveiled at the Vermont Statehouse on May 5. Photo by Demetrius Borge

He is also holding William Paley’s “Natural Theology” and a fossil to represent the anchoring of his theology in nature. You may also note that, to the right of the sky, a storm system is lurking; we have the cross between darkness on the one side and light on the other, and that threshold — twilight — in between the two.

Last but not least, I had to take a tiny, scratchy, dour daguerreotype and discern from there just what Twilight’s jokester smile must have looked like. 

That knowing smile, you see, is fundamental.

By commissioning this portrait, we not only celebrate Twilight as a great Vermonter of color — this is crucial — but the ramifications of bringing Twilight into the People’s House are even larger. After all, a state portrait honors Vermonters of power and prestige.

What images of power do we see in the Statehouse otherwise? We cannot ignore that the overwhelming majority are male, white, and coming from considerable privilege, not to mention a significant military presence. You will notice that Twilight is smiling across the hall at the Vermont Spanish-American war hero Admiral Dewey astride his battleship with its cannons blazing.

You see, Twilight brings with him into the People’s House a radically different kind of power. He is not only a person of color, but also an educator and a pastor — a leader dedicated solely to lifting up other people to live into their fullest potential. This is not leadership through domination; this is leadership through service and relationship.

Think for a moment of our Vermont state motto: Freedom and Unity. Today, we have moved one step closer to making this the case.

After all, there can be no unity without diversity — diversity of races, beliefs, gender identities, sexual orientations, the variety that makes humanity so vibrant.

There can also be no unity where any group has power at the expense of another. You have probably noticed that the list of people in this country routinely dehumanized by laws both written and unwritten is growing: people of color, Indigenous people, LGBTQIA+ people, those trapped in the cycle of poverty, our prisoners, and now, as we have recently learned from the leak in our own Supreme Court, everyone with a uterus. 

Yet there can be no unity when any Vermonter goes uncared for, unseen, uninvited, or unheard. And where there is no unity, there is no freedom.

Yet this portrait gives me hope that we are in fact moving closer to our ideals. May it be the first of many portraits of great Vermonters of color to come. May it be one of many portraits of true servant leaders who will work tirelessly for our motto to become a reality.

In the words of Calvin Coolidge: If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.

May we in Vermont so strive to be a beacon in these pivotal times.

Today we have taken a big step in that direction. May we not be long to take another, and another, until at last we can break free into a run.


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