Everett, Washington, has produced its share of famous native sons: Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson in the political arena, football coach Dennis Erickson for sports and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom in musical circles.
In the art world, Everett’s most renowned export is Chuck Close, an artist whose massively scaled portraits have graced billboards, been on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and who was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000.
Close was also a Fulbright scholar, once drove Bob Dylan home from a concert, and painted a portrait of President Bill Clinton, who before the session sat on the floor to play with Close’s youngest daughter.
Close’s life is a tale of triumph and tragedy. In the newly released book “Chuck Close: Life,” author and artist Christopher Finch paints a compelling chronicle that includes the heart-wrenching event that left Close paralyzed from the shoulders down.
But let’s back up a bit.
Close, an only child, was born in a clapboard house in Monroe on July 5, 1940. He and his mother, Millie, and father, Leslie, lived for a while in Tacoma where, at the age of 11, Close witnessed his father suffer a debilitating stroke at age 48. Leslie Close never recovered.
That turning point sent Close and his mom to Everett, where Close struggled with congenital physical disabilities.
“I’m very nostalgic about my time there,” Close said in a phone interview from New York of growing up in the Pacific Northwest. “I have wonderful memories, some great friends, but it was also a place where I had great pain.”
Close endured the reading disorder dyslexia, neuromuscular problems and the rare disorder known as prosopagnosia, a condition that makes it difficult for a person to remember faces.
Close said having prosopagnosia wasn’t so much an irony as a driver in his life, forcing him to learn faces in the two-dimensional form of a snapshot.
“The art was a direct product of it,” said Close of his condition. “I have to flatten an image to commit it to memory, and once it’s flat, I can remember it.”
The Close book also contains some wonderful historic tidbits of Everett back in the day as Close wound his way through Everett High School and Everett Junior College, now Everett Community College. It was there that teacher and artist Russell Day helped direct Close’s life.
Close went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington and might have stayed in Seattle, if not for Fidel Castro.
“The Cuban Missile Crisis and Bay of Pigs happened, and all of a sudden I needed a student deferment and the need of graduate school. So I owe everything to Fidel Castro,” Close joked. “If not for him, I would not have had the life-changing experience that I had.”
Close graduated from Yale University with a master’s degree in fine art.
The Close book follows the artist’s journey to Europe, to his teaching time at the University of Massachusetts, to his marriage to former student Leslie Rose and to his rise in the art world as the man who turned the art of portraiture on its head.
Finch’s book also takes us to “The Event,” when at the age of 48 — the same age his father died — Close suffered a spinal artery occlusion, basically a stroke, in his spine.
Close became a partial quadriplegic. Through therapy and willpower, he did return to painting.
He uses a wheelchair, paints with brushes strapped to his hands with Velcro, and has an electric easel to move his paintings up and down in his studio.
Close doesn’t mince words about how his fame helped him pull this off.
“Another artist who had this happen to them and hadn’t been successful, they would not be able to outfit a studio like this,” Close said. “So I’m lucky.”
Close has been traveling to promote his book but has no plans to travel west, though he said he does get out here from time to time.
He said he has come to appreciate Everett’s history.
“I wanted to go to Europe and to New York, to be in the biggest sandbox,” Close said. “Even if Everett had been 10 times more active in the arts, it would not have been enough to keep me there.”
Close said he hoped for the continued success of the Everett Public Library, where he spent time as a youth learning about art.
“It’s so important to have those things available because people like me, who have to take another route, who knew they weren’t going to be good at math or science, need to have that,” Close said. “Everyone needs to feel special.”