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'Obama' portrait seems to be of a look-alike

The daughter of late painter Alan Adams says the subject was a model who posed for a group of artists in Los Angeles. The Ojai couple who bought it hold out hope that it's the president.

February 07, 2009|Catherine Saillant

A mystery canvas that appeared to be a portrait of Barack Obama as a young man probably will never hang in the Smithsonian.

On Friday, the daughter of late artist Alan Adams said she's certain the subject for the colorful painting was not the future president but a model who posed for a group of fine-art painters in Los Angeles.

The twentysomething man in the oil painting bears a striking resemblance to President Obama, Jennifer Adams Zobelein agreed. But the portrait was probably painted no later than 1974, when her father stopped working with the portrait group, she said.

At that time, Obama would have been 12 or 13 and living in Hawaii. Obama lived in Los Angeles for two years while he attended Occidental College, but that was in the early 1980s.

Adams Zobelein said a penciled notation on the back of the work saying "BARACK OBAMA (casual attire)" is not her father's handwriting, and she speculated it was added as a prank.

"I think somebody noticed the resemblance and put it on there as a joke," she said from her Oxnard Harbor home, where several of her father's landscapes and portraits fill the walls. "It was with the audacity of hope that it might be of some value to somebody."

The painting was the subject of an article that ran in The Times on Wednesday.

Michael Heffner, the retired Ojai carpenter who paid $2,000 for the portrait, said he was disappointed that it is apparently not a rare find. He and his wife bought the canvas in fall to help raise money for Obama's small Ojai campaign office.

"We bought it thinking it was the president," Heffner said. "We were told that. We're hoping the truth comes forward and we can find out the real story about the artist and the guy in the painting."

Heffner said he still holds out hope that it could be Obama, adding there is no definitive proof that the daughter's memory is correct. The only people who might be able to say for sure are the man in the painting and the president, he pointed out.

"No one knows for sure yet," Heffner said.

Obama aides declined to comment Friday.

The identity of the portrait's model -- a youthful look-alike for the 44th president -- is still a mystery.

Adams Zobelein said her father painted his whole life.

Born in Australia, he studied art in London before moving to California in the mid-1950s, she said. He designed cards for the Buzza Cardoza greeting card company in Los Angeles before taking a job painting movie backdrops for 20th Century Fox, including landscapes used in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," his daughter said.

His real loves were landscapes and portraits, she said. The Carnation Co., known for its condensed milk, commissioned some of his best-known works, including a rendition of the Declaration of Independence that was donated to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Adams Zobelein said.

"He really wanted to be a fine artist," she said. "But painting backdrops was a job and he enjoyed the work."

Her father moved from their West Los Angeles home in 1974, eventually landing in Monterey. He died there in 1985, leaving behind dozens of canvases, said his daughter, 69.

She and her older sister kept many of the paintings, moving them from house to house over the years, Adams Zobelein said. But in her most recent move to Oxnard, about six years ago, she decided to give many away.

She can't remember who got the "Obama" portrait, which had never been hung and stood among stacks of other canvasses. "It's possible I gave it to someone in Los Angeles who sold it at an art auction," she said. "I don't know how we'd trace that."

Carol Lindberg, who donated the painting to the Ojai campaign office, said the Barack Obama notation was already on the canvas when she took possession of it. She declined to provide further information about where she obtained the portrait, other than to say it was given to her by an artist friend.

"I certainly didn't write anything on the back," the retired teacher said.

David Bush, who ran the Ojai campaign office, said he hoped that Heffner was not having buyer's remorse. He, too, believes it could still turn out to be a portrait of the president done by Adams after the artist moved from Los Angeles.

"It obviously looks like Barack Obama and it says Barack Obama on the back," Bush said. "It's still a mystery in my mind."

Adams Zobelein thinks her father, a "great raconteur," would have had great fun with all the fuss.

"I'm sure he's having a good laugh right now," she said.

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catherine.saillant @latimes.com

Times staff writer Raja Abdulrahim contributed to this report.

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