Angelos - Spring 2017

Cover story: Margaret Sargent: Portrait of a Vibrant Life

2017-04-13 01:49:47

ARTICLE BYSHERRY EGAN ANDERSON, ANGELOS EDITOR; VIDEO INTERVIEW BY KRISTEN ARCHER, SENIOR MULTIMEDIA MANAGER Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Playwright Tennessee Williams. West Point's first female brigade commander, Col. Kristin Baker. Mary Maxwell and William Gates Sr., parents of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. George Tyler Moore, father of Mary Tyler Moore. The list includes dozens more names and reads like a journal of "who's who" in business, the arts, government and the military. It also includes those who are not well-known but will be remembered by their likenesses and personalities that were captured on canvas. Margaret "Meg" Holland Sargent is the internationally acclaimed artist whose portraits of these individuals and others are exhibited in museums, cathedrals, corporate offices and halls of academia, as well as private homes. Celebrating her 90th birthday this year, Meg leads a vibrant life, sharing her talents and creativity in many ways, including through the performing arts. She will take breaks from painting to act in stage shows and says, " I'm happy in my professions – both of them." Putting her talents on display for others to see did not come naturally for Meg. She describes herself as being shy when she joined Kappa Delta's Alpha Iota Chapter at UCLA in 1946. Meg's mother accompanied her to the recruitment events, and Meg says, " In those days, it was hat and gloves, and you got all spruced up." Meg's mother was impressed with the women of Alpha Iota and encouraged her daughter to pledge Kappa Delta. It was a decision that didn't require much thought, Meg says. "Everybody [at KD] was so welcoming and so friendly, I was immediately at home." She established close friendships, especially with four women who later served as her bridesmaids: her KD big sister, Zoa Wade Winter; her little sister, Joan Daus Bujold; chapter president, Adair McEathron Jenkins; and Mary Beth Jackson Gibson. " It was a wonderful thing for me," Meg says. "Because being so shy, I needed someone to confide in and who would be my friend for life, and that's what I got." Meg and her groom, Howard, had a traditional military wedding in a church, followed by a reception at the Alpha Iota Chapter House. Because Howard was in the Army, they moved every couple of years, which made it more difficult to keep up with friends they made along the way. But Meg says her KD sisters were a constant and have been lifelong friends. Before attending UCLA where she majored in art, Meg landed a summer job with the California Fabric Company after winning a fabric-designing contest. The owner was so impressed with Meg's work, he offered to pay her tuition to attend art school if she would agree to work for his company after graduation. " It was very tempting," she says, but in the end she chose to not limit her options. Meg's roots in acting go back even further. When she was only 3 years old, her father, a renowned makeup artist at MGM Studios, dressed Meg in her brother's clothes, and with her short, curly hair, she got a part in a movie – playing a boy. When Meg's husband was teaching at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, she joined a theater group and met a friend who encouraged her to also participate in an art class for dependents and spouses at West Point. " I went to the art class and was blown away and stayed for three years," Meg says. " It was the most exciting thing to learn how to paint properly." The teacher was Herbert Abrams, and Meg says, "He was able to explain the process so well, it was impossible not to understand how to paint. Anyone could paint, I thought, if they listened to his process. So I owe everything to Herb, with the exception of one other teacher, John Howard Sanden, who was also wonderful." While taking Abrams' class, Meg learned to paint landscapes, still life and portraits in oil, and she began to entertain the thought that she could make painting a career because she had been trained properly and believed in the process. "They would bring in people, and we would paint the portraits, and I just loved that," Meg says. " It was what I wanted to do, and I knew that was it . . . But I also had the knowledge of the still life and the landscapes, so if somebody wanted to be in an outdoor scene with lovely trees and flowers, I knew I could handle it. Or if they wanted an indoor scene with their clock and pots and beautiful table set with brocade cloth, I could do that. So that gave me the confidence to accept any kind of commission." While an argument can be made that Meg had a natural talent for painting, she worked through her share of challenges and was so frustrated one time in class she threw her brushes down and kicked them across the room. Abrams told her: "Don't do that again. Don't ever do that again." And she didn't; at least not in front of her teacher. " [Portrait painting] is a challenge," Meg says. "You have to get a likeness and please the subject and so forth. When you start out, it looks rather strange. That's why artists don't like people watching them . . . hopefully, every time I get to that point where . . . you're able to see exactly what you want – the shadow side and the eyes that sparkle." Then, Meg says, " I put down the brushes, and I start dancing around the room! I get so excited; it is magic! It's a wonderful process, and when it goes right, your heart just explodes." Her most difficult project to date was painting the posthumous portrait of Bill Gates' mother, Mary. Meg met with William Gates Sr. to learn more about his deceased wife, perused their family photos and watched home videos. "Can you believe I was privy to watching these videos?" she asks excitedly, with no indication that her interaction with prominent figures and popular celebrities for years has lessened her enthusiasm. Mary Gates' portrait was difficult because there wasn't one photo that she could use. The photo with the best facial expression showed Gates wearing a gown and not a suit as the family wanted. Meg realized she was about the same height and build as the subject, so she dressed in a suit and blouse similar to one she saw Gates wearing in a photograph, and then she says she " took a selfie" to get a photo of her own body and clothing that she could refer to as she completed Gates' portrait, which now hangs in the University of Washington student union building. Meg used digital photography/ editing to help her with Mary Gates' portrait. For years she took 35 mm photos of her subjects at their sittings and developed the film in her own darkroom. When the digital age arrived, she was quick to embrace the new technology, and nearly 20 years ago, she spoke to a group of artists gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about her use of digital photography as an aid to her portrait painting. " I was just beginning, but I was willing to tell everybody how it worked for me," Meg says. " [Confidence] is very important," Meg says. "With each portrait I do, I try so hard to make it my best work yet. That's the way you improve." Meg is most proud of her portrait of former President Ford. It was the summer of 1974, and Meg and her family were living in New York. Bolstered by her first show in 1971 at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, she took her portfolio to Time Magazine, which at the time commissioned portraits to use on its covers. The art director's secretary instructed her to add it to the stacks of other artists' portfolios, and she thought to herself, "Oh sure, he'll see it sometime next year." Much to Meg's surprise, about a week later her phone rang with someone identifying himself as Time Magazine's art director and asking if she'd be interested in painting a portrait of Vice President Gerald Ford. She first thought one of her acting friends was "putting her on," but she didn't dare to not play along just in case the caller was whom he claimed to be. The next day she went to Time's office, and to her relief, the art director was expecting her. She headed back to her studio with a 35 mm slide and a two-day deadline to complete the painting. Because she was using a slide and not a photograph, she had to project the image in the dark. "But you know, you have to be able to see to paint," Meg quips. She rigged a special light on her canvas and then painted all night, meeting Time's deadline and earning her $500 commission. As can happen in publishing, her painting was not used as expected for the current cover, but was later selected by then President Ford to appear in Time Magazine's 1976 bicentennial issue. The painting's whereabouts for nearly the next 40 years is a mystery, but today it hangs in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Michigan and was appraised and insured for $75,000. The story of how it came to be there is posted at Meg also is deservedly proud of her many " firsts." She was the first woman certified by the American Portrait Society, the first woman charter member of the Council of Leading American Portrait Painters and the first female member of the Salmagundi Club, New York's oldest professional art club. A champion for other women, she painted the first woman midshipman at Annapolis, the first woman chaplain in the Armed Forces, and the first woman graduate of West Point, who was a war casualty. These portraits she donated to the military academies. She has been featured in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, American Artist and Town and Country. Kappa Delta named Meg a Woman of Achievement at the 2005 National Convention in Washington, D.C. She recalls being given a speech topic: "What would I have changed?" The other award recipients seriously discussed their careers, but Meg thought a little levity was needed, and so she shared a story about a wardrobe malfunction she experienced as a collegian while performing a hula dance at a campus event. Certain the UCLA audience's reaction was approval, she danced even faster, until two women pulled her behind the curtain. Discovering her top had " slid south" wasn't so funny for a shy girl in the 1940s, but today she laughs that maybe she can claim another first – the first topless dancer in Hollywood! For the remainder of the 2005 convention, Meg says she wasn't recognized for her prestigious award; she was known as "the hula lady." She still loves to dance and enjoys performing in musicals. She also loves to make people laugh, but with pranks of her own device. For example, before an operation she wrote a humorous message to her doctor in an unexpected location. No doubt the entire surgical team had a good laugh when they saw "Do not open until Christmas" scrawled in ink at the site of her impending incision. " It's been an interesting life," she says. " I decided I was going to have fun during this lifetime." Visit for more information. Click here in the digital edition of the Angelos to view a video of Margaret Sargent's KD story, or go to

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