Joan LeMay is back and it's a beautiful day in this neighborhood.
Mister Rogers Portrait II by Joan LeMay
10"x8" ($24) | 14"x11" ($60) | 20"x16" ($240) | 30"x24" ($1200) Joan LeMay to thank. For her second limited-edition print release, the Portland, Oregon-based painter created this buoyant, blossoming tribute to a beloved icon: everyone’s favorite neighbor, Mister Rogers. And why? Well it’s his birthday tomorrow, of course, and though he’s no longer around to jazzily sing our sorrows away, his legacy of love, empathy, and acceptance deserves every opportunity to live on. Let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
LeMay has been painting her heroes for a while now, people (or things) who comfort or encourage her. To call Fred Rogers a hero isn’t an exaggeration—he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom after all—and comfort is a word many people associate with the man. Over the course of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s 34-year-long run, Rogers’ life-affirming program put countless children (and adults!) at ease. He was the human incarnation of chicken soup for the soul—heartening, inspiriting, pure, unabashed in his big, fuzzy, heart-on-the-sleeve benevolence. His vulnerability was perhaps his greatest strength.
Rogers’ uniquely comforting presence is a big part of why LeMay has painted him more than once. Like so many of us, she grew up watching Mister Rogers on TV, absorbing his lessons, taking his messages of self-worth and come-as-you-are contentment to heart. These messages were as meaningful at the time as they are now—simple, much-needed reminders that we’re doing our best, that we all deserve dignity and acknowledgement. Mister Rogers Portrait II is LeMay’s celebration of someone and something that soothes her, a person and a show. It’s a variation on a theme for the artist, who has painted homages to pop culture figureheads and prescription drugs alike. Just take a peek at her debut edition, Birth Control Portrait I.
In her portraiture, LeMay often takes a few cues from religious iconography. Mister Rogers Portrait II incorporates the artist’s interpretation of a Byzantine-style halo, a gesture historically reserved for depictions of holy, sacred or saintly figures. Surrounding Rogers’ visage in a disk of light, she emphasizes her subject’s significance, both personal and highly public, drawing out his divinity. (A not-incidental aside: Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.) As is also prevalent in religious iconography and common in LeMay’s oeuvre in general, symbolism is deployed in Mister Rogers Portrait II in order to access some of the more ethereal qualities of her subject’s enduring persona. Encircling his halo is a diverse array of dazzling flowers, perhaps indicative of the unconditional love he propagated for people from all walks of life. His yellow sweater recalls his sunny disposition, his polka dot tie a nod to his playful side, his rosy cheeks radiating earnest wonder and young-at-heart youthfulness.
We can hear the xylophone now, twinkling out his introduction. Rogers takes off his work shoes and ties on his sneakers, zips up one of his quintessential sweaters, feeds the fish in his aquarium. With compassion, calmness, intelligence, and honesty, he walks us through everything from how to play the kazoo to how to manage the complicated emotions around divorce. He makes the case for the healing, unifying power of kindness, generosity, and respect.
Looking at Mister Rogers Portrait II, it’s hard not to see Rogers’ outlook in jarring contrast to the dialogue of our current day, which is too often nasty and divisive. In the present moment we may need Mister Rogers more than ever—a new documentary even backs that idea up. LeMay’s edition certainly spreads the Fred Rogers-level comfort and joy, but it also gives us something to ask ourselves: What kind of neighbors do we want to be?