The Spencer Research Library is in the process of cataloguing and preserving hundreds of original autographed portraits of famous entertainers that were donated by John Tibbetts, an associate professor in the Department of Film & Media Studies.
During his career as a journalist for CBS and NPR, Tibbetts interviewed thousands of actors, musicians, writers and broadcasters. Before meeting with an interviewee, Tibbetts said he would paint a portrait of the subject to present during the interview itself. This served to break the ice and make himself memorable to people who might do dozens of interviews in a year.
“It granted me entry into the movie stars that was unusual,” Tibbetts said. “These guys are interviewed all the time, and they get all the same questions from faceless interviewers. They got to know me because of the artwork.”
Michael Douglas, who Tibbetts interviewed several times over the course of his career, would often hold up the portraits on camera and talk about them. Julie Andrews discussed her plans to write and illustrate children’s books upon receiving her portrait. So did Whoopi Goldberg. Gene Hackman told Tibbetts about the sketchbook he carried around with him on film sets, drawing what he saw around him to pass the time in between takes.
Tibbetts didn’t always have a lot of time to spend on the paintings. The night before an interview, he would often be awake and painting a likeness based off an album cover or a film still in a press kit. Tibbetts said that sometimes he had never heard of the person before, as was the case when he painted a young Leonardo DiCaprio.
The artworks have mostly been sitting in Tibbetts’ basement since they were painted. The library will acquire almost all of them over the next several years in installments of a few hundred. The first batch, which includes about 250 portraits of mostly writers and musicians, arrived at the library in October. Tibbetts said he was surprised and very pleased at the library’s willingness to accommodate his many works of art.
“I thought, ‘You can’t possibly know what you’re getting into,’ because I have more than 700 of these autographed pieces,” he said. “They didn’t turn a hair.”
Tibbetts has also donated other complementary materials from his career such as transcripts, film stills and even recorded footage of some interviews. All materials can be viewed at the library upon request.
Elspeth Healey, a special collections librarian, said Tibbetts’ donation is valuable for researchers as well as anyone who’s interested in entertainment history. The cataloguing process was made much easier by the care Tibbetts took to make lists, including every portrait in his possession. Tibbetts said he remembers each one.
“He has an amazing memory for the interviews he’s conducted over the years,” Healey said. “I think he must have really distinguished himself as an interviewer in having these portraits, so when he met with these individuals, how could they not be interested and engaged with him when they see that he’s taken the time to produce these amazing portraits?”
Tibbetts said he has found life lessons in painting. He learned about balance while experimenting with the right amount of water to use in watercolor. Mixing the color green taught him that life is enriched by opposites — you have to mix in a little red to get a rich green. He said the biggest mistake people make when approaching art — and life — is hesitation.
“I always tell people that I think the bravest act I know is not necessarily in the line of battle, but in approaching an empty sheet of paper or drawing board and making those first few strokes that are going to commit you to something,” he said.
— Edited by Cody Schmitz