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Iconic Image: Obama illustration finds place at portrait gallery

WASHINGTON – A red, white and blue illustration of Barack Obama, staring off into space with the word “Hope” underneath his face, got a lot of attention during the presidential campaign.

Copies of that image showed up on posters, coffee mugs, T-shirts and even hats during the presidential campaign.

Now people visiting Washington can see the image, up close and in person, at the National Portrait Gallery.

The work by artist Shepard Fairey can be seen in the gallery’s new arrivals section. The Los Angeles artist presented the illustration to the gallery on Saturday, three days before Obama’s inauguration.

On a stage facing supporters, Fairey helped lift the veil off a mixed-media stenciled collage version that he created around May last year. Afterward, he greeted fans who immediately gathered around the artist and his six-foot-high piece.

The museum announced earlier this month that the portrait would be a part of the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery. Art collectors Heather and Tony Podesta of Washington donated money for the Smithsonian to purchase the work.

“We look for an image that has significance or resonance for a particular moment in that individual’s career,” said Carolyn Carr, deputy director for the Portrait Gallery. “It’s the image that became iconic for this campaign, became ubiquitous in terms of its distribution throughout the nation.”

Typically, the gallery acquires official portraits of presidents as they are leaving office, and an official Obama portrait will be added later.

When the Los Angeles artist created the initial illustration of Barack Obama in mid-January last year, he only wanted to make a patriotic image of a politician he actually liked. Did he think that it could become one of the most memorable images from the 2008 election?

“Absolutely not,” Fairey said. “My desire for the image was to make something that I thought was patriotic and iconic but unique enough to capture the interest of people.”

He released the image on his Web site shortly after he created it and made thousands of posters for the street. As its visibility caught on, supporters began downloading the image and distributing it at campaign events, while blogs and other Internet sites picked it up.

“It was both the visible presence of the posters and the Internet combined that yielded an immediate viral storm,” he said.

At first, Obama’s team just gave him permission to make the image, he said. But soon after he created it, a worker involved in the campaign asked if Fairey could make an image from a photo the campaign had rights to, he said. Fairey changed the portrait’s bottom phrase to “change” for a revised illustration.

Fast forward several months. Shepard’s inspiration was preparing to be sworn into office at the White House, and the image that helped push along Obama’s visibility in the election now hangs beside the national treasures at the National Portrait Gallery.

Fairey said he’s kept in touch with some members of Obama’s team and would like to work for Obama again, maybe as a consultant for art education policy.

He has to reach him first. “He’s a lot harder to get a hold of now,” he said.

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