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Each year at the Academy Awards, the losing nominees of the top five individual categories – best director, actor, actress, and supporting actor and actress – receive gift bags, each containing items such as electronic devices, vacation packages, clothing, and jewelry. They’re dubbed ‘swag bags that console Hollywood’s most glamorous losers.’ Sunday night at the Oscars, these losers will receive something different - a word portrait of Abraham Lincoln, courtesy of Springfield artist Dan Duff. KSMU’s Samuel Crowe spoke with Duff and has this story.
A word portrait is a piece of art comprised of thousands of individually colored square pixels that form a singular image. And inside each of these grids is a letter.
“When you see the squares, it’s like on a television screen. You see the dots. Your brain does the closure, and you see the image. So that’s kind of the idea behind this,” Duff said.
That’s Springfield-based artist Dan Duff. In 2004, he was living in Kansas City with his wife and two young daughters, working at an advertising agency. He painted on the side, and thought about how he could engage his viewers and get them to spend more time with his paintings. So he decided to incorporate words into iconic images, and drawing influence from artist Chuck Close, he started a word portrait of the Mona Lisa using letters to make up adjectives that describe women. Four years later, the portrait was finished, and Duff received positive feedback on Mona Lisa from his friends. When he and his family moved to Springfield from Kansas City, Duff became a stay-at-home dad and suddenly had a lot more free time. So he started another word portrait, which the Illinois native titled “Abraham.”
“So it’s like, what could I do, what words can I use to provide a portrait of somebody in their own words? That’s kind of the idea. And then it was like, oh, that’s it, a portrait of somebody in their own words. So I will use Lincoln’s words to actually make the portrait,” Duff said.
The portrait consists of 4,880 squares. The top fifth of the portrait are words that make up Lincoln’s iconic Gettysburg Address.
“The rest of it is just quotes. I went to the library and I asked people what their favorite quotes were, and I did some research online. I picked out some that I thought were good representations of what I know of his character. There’s a lot from letters that he wrote to people as a lawyer, and there’s some fun quotes in there. He actually had a sharp sense of humor,” Duff said.
Duff started his portrait by coloring each grid, then painting a letter in the grids. He says he had to paint many squares 15-20 times just to get the right color, often stepping back, analyzing the portrait, and then making subtle changes. It took Duff eight months to complete “Abraham.”
“The color of the square I use, I have to look at what’s around it. If I’m doing a face, and it’s a cheek, and there’s a shadow, I’ve got to figure out what different gradation do I use to make either a highlight on the cheek or pull it into shadow. And then when I put the letter on top of it, I’ve got to decide, ‘Do I need to pull it out even more, make it lighter, or do I darken it even more with the letter?’ So they kind of work together,” Duff said.
Fast forward two years. Director Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln is released, telling the story of the President’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery. It’s a hit at the box office, and then nominated for 12 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Supporting Actress. Duff had been working with local photographer Josh Mitchell to create prints of his art and sell them locally, but Duff says he was looking for an opportunity to get his name out to a larger audience.
“People are talking about how Lincoln is up for all these awards; you’ve got to figure out a way to get a print to them. And I remembered this gift bag that goes out to the nominees who do not win,” Duff said.
These gift bags are handed out by the Los Angeles-based marketing firm Distinctive Assets; the company hands out bags at other events, such as the Grammy and Tony Awards. This year at the Oscars, each swag bag is valued at over $15,000, and Duff says in years past they’ve been valued as high as $100,000.
Duff did some research on gift bag items from previous years and couldn’t find any fine art prints. So he sent Distinctive Assets an email, explained who he was and asked if they’d consider his “Abraham” portrait. Two hours later, they replied back, and “Abraham” was on the list of Oscar swag.
Nominess to lose their respective category Sunday night will receive a smaller, matted version of Duff’s Abe Lincoln word portrait, with instructions on the back on how to claim their 18x24 print. Duff will ship “Abraham” from his Springfield home to wherever the stars request.
And if some nominees are bitter that they lost to a Lincoln nominee, he says he’ll exchange piece for another one of his word portraits – potentially good news for best actor nominee Joaquin Phoenix, in case he’s interested in Duff’s Johnny Cash word portrait.
Click here to visit Dan Duff's website, where you will find many more of his word portraits.
*As of February 20th, the value of each gift bag is at $45,000.