Simon Bull shares his memories of painting with Muhammad Ali

Simon Bull Muhammad Ali Park West Gallery

Simon Bull with his artwork, “Distant Thunder”

Artist Simon Bull was one of two artists selected by Park West Gallery to work with Muhammad Ali in creating a limited series of paintings based on the legendary boxer’s career.

Bull, along with the rest of the world, was disheartened upon hearing that Ali died at the age of 74 on June 3, 2016. The following is what Bull wrote about his experiences working with The Greatest:

 

Painting the legendary Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest highlights of my career and offered me a front row seat into some of the day to day realities of the Champ’s life in his later years.

My collaboration with Ali began when Albert Scaglione of Park West Gallery asked me to submit some paintings for possible inclusion in a new program featuring the Champ. What started out as a creative project became a personal one when Lonnie, Muhammad’s wife, called and asked if they could get some of my paintings for their home. A few weeks later I travelled to Louisville with Albert and Mitsie Scaglione to call on the Alis in their newly decorated home, resplendent with my Ali portraits. We sat and visited for a while and then Lonnie showed us around, walking past the life sized Andy Warhol paintings to the gym where Ali continued to work out every day, despite his disability. Then onto his study where my painting called “Distant Thunder” looked down on the proceedings.

Sion Bull Muhammad Ali Park West Gallery

Simon Bull with a number of his works that hung in the Ali residence.

Back in the studio, the Ali portraits continued to roll out and although I did paint several of his fights, I was fascinated most of all by his face.  It was a face that showed a thousand different emotions. An enigma, beautiful, never far from a smile and always with the eyes on something just ahead, something away in the distance. Who knows how many blows it had suffered and yet there it was, radiant, kind, impish. Although the years added layers of suffering to his features they never did manage to fully extinguish the sparkle of the young Cassius who hid behind them.

Once, while I was preoccupied with my work, he looked slowly up and fixed a menacing eye on me, as I looked back somewhat concerned, he lunged at me with a left hook and then just started laughing. His timing was perfect. Always.

I loved that about him, and one of the greatest lessons I shall take away from my time with him was that sense of joy he had in living. He struggled immensely with his Parkinson’s, but always went the extra mile to let his fans get their picture taken with him or to crack some joke.

Simon Bull Muhammad Ali Park West Gallery

“Eat Your Words XXVII” (2007), Simon Bull – Muhammad Ali

Not many people are aware that he was also an artist. As part of his therapy he would sit in his recliner and do intricate designs with colored markers all day long. We sat together sketching once when I was at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He with his markers and me with my pencil, working on his portrait, it was an intimate moment, the world’s greatest sporting figure sitting quietly in his favorite chair while I carefully observed and sketched.

Simon Bull Muhammad Ali Park West Gallery

Simon Bull speaking with Muhammad Ali at the Ali residence.

I was honored to be asked to speak on their behalf at the Vancouver International Film Festival for the premier of the movie “Facing Ali.” Then, in 2009, he personally commissioned me to paint two joint portraits of himself and then President-elect Barack Obama. The completed works were unveiled at the Kentucky Bluegrass Ball on the eve of President Obama’s first Inauguration by actress Ashley Judd. I always remember beginning my speech to the assembled great and good that night with the words: “You can tell by my accent that I am not from Kentucky.” Ashley and I had to stay on the stage after the unveiling in order to hold onto the paintings while the Temptations came up and sang a rendition of “My Girl” to Lonnie Ali, who was on the platform with Muhammad. It was pretty funny, hiding up on stage behind the artworks, while the performers did their thing. As the band left the stage, a guy called Mitch McConnell came up and spoke. Back in those days, as a newly minted immigrant, I was not yet conversant with the ins and outs of American politics, so the title ‘Senate Majority Leader” meant little to me, but he seemed like a nice enough guy.

Simon Bull - Muhammad Ali Park West Gallery

“Champ CXVII” (2008), Simon Bull – Muhammad Ali

In my paintings of Ali I always painted a warm and cool side to his face, giving his features a kind of movie poster, mythical look, and then the eyes, nearly always looking into the distance, anticipating the next big fight. I used his face to tell a story, not of the outer fight, but the inner one and ultimately I think that is why we can all relate so well to him, because his battles inspire us with the strength and the courage to get up for another round and to take the blows if necessary, but ultimately to come out the other side a better version of ourselves than we were before.

Muhammad, I will miss our times together, but you gave me a special gift and I hope in some small way I can pass that same spark that you gave to me onto the world for future generations to enjoy. Rest in peace now, your fight is over, your battle won.

 

4 Responses to Simon Bull shares his memories of painting with Muhammad Ali

  1. Barbara Waters says:

    The Ali art are masterpieces. Magnificent work of a beautiful man gone too soon.

  2. Barbara Waters says:

    Simon Bull is one of our favorites-enjoyed a day we spent with him, his wife and daughter I’m Ocho Rios a few years ago.

  3. Bruce Hurst says:

    Meeting Muhammad and Lonnie at the Ali Center at the unvailing of your portraits and acquiring one of the portraits was truly a highlight of my life. The portrait is proudly displayed and we receive so many positive comments. I have followed Ali’s life from the beginning. He has been a true inspiration and I am deeply saddened by his passing.

  4. Michael Vogel says:

    Simon I bought several of your
    Paintings in palm beach this winter and we treasure your works . After reading this article
    I learned what how 2 champs got together in respect and admiration. Bless you both

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