On the walls of the main staircase in Leidy Laboratories hang pictures of the turn-of-the-century scientists that made Penn a hotbed of research on the natural world.
All but one of these pictures are old drawings or photographs of historical paintings. The exception is a color acrylic painting of Edward Drinker Cope, the famous 19th-century Penn paleobiologist.
The painting, which replaces an engraved portrait of Cope that disappeared in March 2000, is the work of Biology Department Housekeeper Ron Washington.
Washington, 57, has been painting for almost as long as he has worked at Penn—30 years. Inspired by the works of art he came across—most notably Thomas Eakins’ “The Agnew Clinic”—while cleaning campus buildings, Washington decided to take up the brush himself. The result, if the Cope portrait can serve as a guide, is impressive for a self-taught amateur artist.
We spoke with Washington and his wife Arlene, who is at once his biggest booster and (in his words) “my worst critic,” about his passion for painting and how he came to do the Cope portrait.
Q. What led you to take up painting?
A. I was working in the Medical School, in Environmental Medicine under Dr. [Christian] Lambertsen, [professor emeritus of environmental medicine]—I used to run around doodling on 3-by-5 cards with [a] Flair pen. I used to do little designs and I used to run around showing everybody these cards. And they’d all say, That’s nice, Ron. And one of the workers, a fellow by the name of Charlie Hires, he gave me a paint set—an oil paint set, with brushes, you know, high quality stuff. And I started painting. I did a seascape, the first painting, and I did a couple of portraits of a young brother-in-law who had just passed away. And I did one for his mother and his grandmother.
Q. Is this just a hobby for you?
A. Well, it started out like a hobby, but I really got serious after he gave me the art supplies. I’ve been in a few shows. …I used to belong to a black art group called Visual Odyssey back in the ’80s, and we did a few shows. But basically, I’m self-taught. I did take one painting class here at Penn, back in the ’80s. But that was my only formal experience with art school.
Q. How did you come to paint the Cope portrait?
A. I had done two portraits of people in the school. One of a fellow named Al Chaney, who was a research specialist, and a Dr. [Yoshotaka] Suyama [emeritus professor of biology], I did a portrait of him.
So one of the research specialists who hung all the pictures of the doctors in the stairwell, he and I were talking about this particular painting that was stolen off the wall, which was Edward Drinker Cope, and I told him I could reproduce [it], because I had seen a couple of printouts of the reproduction of it, and he said he would talk to the chairman and get the OK. And that’s what happened, he OK’d my painting.
Q. Is there a particular style of painting that you prefer?
A. I like landscapes. [I’ve also] done a lot of abstract [painting]; that’s sort of a phase I went through, and I’ve sort of gone beyond that.
Arlene: We took a trip to the Art Museum last Sunday, and I mean—some of the artists in there weren’t—
Ron: Don’t brag.
Arlene: I’m supposed to brag about it. Some of the pictures in there couldn’t even compare to what he could do. In the Art Museum!
Ron: Of course, everything there you may not think is great, but somebody felt that it would work, or it wouldn’t be there. But I was very inspired looking at some of the—who was that? Monet? Claude Monet, some of his work—I was really inspired by what he’d done, some of his landscapes.
As a matter of fact, they encouraged me to work bigger, because I used to work [on] these smaller canvases.
Q. Ever had a dream that you might see your work hanging in a museum someday?
A. Oh, yeah, sure. Matter of fact, this was a dream come true here, to put the painting up in the Biology Department. Because I’ve been watching paintings around the campus. And I used to sort of moan. I’d say, Boy, Leidy Labs should have more artwork. And Bob Kuniewicz [lab instruction coordinator, said] they really should have more artwork hanging around. ’Cause some of the stuff they had is reproductions or photographs. But they do have three big paintings in the lecture hall. One of [Penn biologist Joseph] Leidy and the other two were doctors, I’m not familiar with them. [There are three others: Thomas Harrison Montgomery, John Muirhead MacFarlane and C. E. McClung, all former chairs of the Biology Department.]
Arlene: They’re huge, and they’re beautiful too.
Ron: But you know, that’s always been a dream of mine, to hang a portrait. And that was a dream come true.
A reward, first posted in 2000, is still available for information leading to the recovery of the original Cope portrait. Call the Biology Department, 215-898-7121, for more information.
Originally published on January 24, 2002