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A mystery portrait of Obama as a young man?

February 04, 2009|Catherine Saillant
  • Michael Heffner shows the painting, done by the late L.A. artist Alan Adams.
Michael Heffner shows the painting, done by the late L.A. artist Alan Adams. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Sure, President Obama's busy trying to solve the nation's problems.

But Megan McCluer and her husband, Michael Heffner, would like just a minute of his time to settle a mystery: As a young man, did he sit for a portrait painted by an obscure Los Angeles artist? And what's up with the shirt?

Obama supporters McCluer and Heffner bought the colorful 32-inch x 41-inch framed painting last fall to help raise money for the candidate's tiny Ojai headquarters.

Scrawled on the back is a notation that says: "BARACK OBAMA (casual attire)." Strokes of teal and burgundy provide a vibrant contrast to Obama's even more colorful striped shirt, evoking a late '70s disco vibe.

Indeed, the portrait appears to be the 44th president in his early 20s, casually seated in white slacks and that mod shirt, stylishly open at the collar. Little is known about the artist, Alan Adams, other than that he worked in Los Angeles for many years and, possibly, briefly in Hawaii.

It is believed that Adams died about 10 years ago, leaving behind works that were sold off by relatives. How and when he might have met Obama remains frustratingly unknown for the oil painting's new owners.

Obama aides said they were unable to run down the story of the portrait and added that it was "not likely" that Obama would have time to address it.

What McCluer and Heffner do know is that the portrait was given to the Ojai campaign office last fall. The Ventura woman who donated the painting declined to talk about how she acquired it, other than to confirm that it was given to her by a Los Angeles collector who wanted to remain anonymous.

Carol Lindberg, a retired teacher, said she promised the collector that she would not divulge how it came into her possession.

"I just have no comment," she said.

David Bush, who helped run the Ojai campaign office, said Lindberg walked in the night the office opened last August and offered the painting.

"She came up to me and said, 'Here I am donating this,' " Bush recalled.

Lindberg told Bush that she had come across the painting as she went through stacks of frames piled in the studio of a Los Angeles painter. The painter had bought the portrait for its frame five or six years earlier at an L.A. art auction, and had forgotten about it, Bush said Lindberg told him.

Lindberg "was going through the stacks and said, "Hey, did you know this is Barack Obama?' " Bush said.

"It's truly one of those yard-sale finds," said Bush, an environmental lawyer.

The painter gave the portrait to Lindberg, who tried to donate it directly to Obama's national campaign, Bush said. But she never got a response to her queries. When Lindberg learned that Ojai was mounting its own campaign push, she stepped forward with the donation. As soon as McCluer saw it, she had to have it, her husband said. McCluer offered $2,000, but the campaign office organizers were unsure whether they should part with it.

Then McCluer, 45, tried a bit more persuasion.

McCluer used to work for a wind-turbine manufacturer in Carpinteria, and she had taken a job as a manager with a U.S. Department of Energy wind and hydropower technologies program. If Obama won the election, McCluer said, she would hang it in a corridor at the Energy Department's Washington office.

That clinched the deal.

"Our fantasy is that we put this in her office in D.C., and Barack will come walking down the hall one day and see it and give us some answers," said Heffner, 53, a retired carpenter.

For now, the portrait remains in the rural Ojai home where the couple has lived for two years. McCluer, who started her job in September, flies home to California whenever she can, Heffner said.

She plans to hang the painting in her Energy Department office as soon as she gets the OK from her superiors.

"It has to go through some channels before it can be hung on the wall," he said. "We're working on it."

Paintings of Obama for sale abound on the Internet. There's an original oil for $5,400 on EBay and plenty of cheaper models for $99.99. But the portrait in McCluer and Heffner's possession could be truly rare -- a fine-art rendition of the future president before he was famous.

Obama was raised in Hawaii and attended Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years in the early 1980s. Bush speculated that the artist and future politician could have bumped paths in either of those locales. It seems unlikely that Adams painted the portrait from a photograph, he said.

"Why would he have painted it unless he knew Barack Obama?" Bush said.

Little information is publicly available on Adams, the artist. Eric Merrell, an archivist with the California Art Club, confirmed that Adams was a member of the prestigious group, serving as a vice president in 1967.

He lived in Los Angeles at the time, and mounted exhibitions for the art club with the help of his wife. A newsletter put out by the organization noted that Adams' wife died in 1969, the last reference Merrell could find to the artist.

"I haven't come across anyone who knew him," the archivist said. "It's a mystery."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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