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Columbia-area artist chosen to paint portrait of Clementa Pinckney

Columbia-area artist Larry Lebby will spend the next nine months painting slain state Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s portrait to return his smile to the S.C. Senate.

Lebby, 64, was selected this week by a special Senate committee to paint Pinckney’s portrait that will hang in the Senate chamber.

“I want to make sure that when I do a portrait that it has more to offer than just a likeness of the person – that it is a visual piece of fine artwork, which will stand upon the test of time,” Lebby told The State newspaper.

Pinckney died June 17 when he was shot along with eight other African-Americans at Emanuel AME in Charleston, where he was the pastor. Police have charged Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man who friends say wanted to start a race war. He is facing the death penalty.

The day after the shooting, senators unanimously approved displaying a portrait of Pinckney in the Senate chamber.

State Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Darlington Democrat who chairs the special committee to oversee the portrait, said Pinckney’s widow, Jennifer, was overjoyed when she learned about the portrait.

The portrait of Pinckney – a 41-year-old father of two who spent much of his adult life at the State House as a page, representative and senator – will be paid for with private funds. The cost was not disclosed.

“Larry Lebby is a South Carolina treasure,” Malloy said.

Lebby has painted four portraits that hang in the S.C. State House, including paintings of of Benjamin E. Mays, mentor to Martin Luthur King Jr., and Modjeska Simkins, a civil rights leader. Lebby also created a ballpoint pen portrait of Jimmy Carter that hung in the White House during Carter’s presidency.

Lebby’s artwork is displayed around the world, including the Vatican in Rome.

Lebby asked Jennifer Pinckney for pieces of the senator’s wardrobe to potentially include in the portrait – his lapel pin or a favorite tie. Lebby plans to use photographs and possibly have a relative of Pinckney who looks like the senator model for the painting.

Lebby is waiting for a Belgian linen canvas to be shipped so he can begin work on the oil painting.

Lebby said he has somewhat of a heavy heart as he undertakes the portrait.

He was home when he heard news of the Charleston shooting.

“It’s very difficult to explain racism,” Lebby said. “We know it exists. We know it’s prominent in our society, and it’s sad that it does exist because all humanity is a part of each other.”

Lebby recalled when he integrated Airport High School in the mid-1960s. He once walked to lunch with other black students past the stadium as white students lined up under the press box and threw ice at the black students.

But he found kindness and an outlet through art classes, where teachers were supportive of his talent, he said.

“There were people who had very good intentions and didn’t necessarily look at the skin color of a person to measure what their brain power was or who they were,” he said.

Lebby’s work is known for its details.

“When Larry first came on the art scene, he was very much known for his highly technical skills as a draftsman,” said Harriett Green, director of visual arts for the S.C. Arts Commission.

Green said Lebby was able to use ballpoint pen and graphite to show the minutest of details.

Simkins looks like she’s about to say something in her portrait, which hangs in the State House by the stairs that lead to the House of Representatives chamber, Green said.

“That’s the essence of her because she was known to be a voice that people listened to,” Green said.

Lebby will paint Pinckney’s portrait in his studio, where his largest watercolor, more than 5 feet wide and nearly 4 feet tall, leans against a wall. The painting shows his youngest son sitting on a rock on a Columbia river. A magnifying glass unearths secrets, such as details in the leaves or writing on a shirt.

He stores his paintbrushes in a Planters peanuts can and will bring an easel into his studio to paint Pinckney’s portrait.

Malloy said the portrait will remind senators of the love and grace that Pinckney offered.

“We knew that this was a part of history and that (Pinckney’s) picture belonged on those walls so that we can look into that history and have history look back at us,” Malloy said.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657; Twitter: @cassielcope

Lebby’s portraits

Larry Lebby will paint the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s portrait to hang in the Senate chamber. He has four portraits in the S.C State House:

Robert Brown Elliott, U.S. House of Representatives, 1871-1874. Speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives 1874-1876. Portrait hangs in the S.C. House chamber.

Benjamin E. Mays, mentor to Martin Luthur King Jr. and a president of Morehouse College. Portrait hangs in the S.C. House chamber.

Samuel Jones Lee, Speaker of the S.C. House from 1872-1874. Portrait hangs in the S.C. House chamber.

Modjeska Simkins, prominent S.C. civil rights leader. Portrait hangs on the stairway leading to the S.C. House chamber.

Larry Lebby

Age: 64

Hometown: Dixiana, S.C.; now lives in Forest Acres

Education: Airport High School; University of South Carolina, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts

Family: His wife of nearly 30 years and five children

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