Acclaimed artist finds solace in DeForest

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July 26, 2017 (Photo and Story By Shari Gasper for the Times-Tribune)

In Ben McCready’s DeForest art studio sit the founding partners of a Los Angeles-based national law firm, a dean from the University of California-Los Angeles, a federal judge for the United States Sixth District, the president and CEO of a Chicago Fortune 500 company and a dean from The Ohio State University. The unique array of dignitaries sit wordlessly, their expressions captured forever in oil paint by the artist’s attentive eyes and gifted hands.

McCready is a master portrait painter who has earned international acclaim for his portraits of distinguished statesmen, corporate leaders and renowned educators. He has completed more than 600 portraits, including four United States presidents.

His career as a painter was not part of his original life plan, but a worthwhile and rewarding change in direction.

A decade after college, McCready was working as an executive recruiter, telling job candidates to follow their bliss. One day he decided to follow his own advice and turned to his love of art. Thirty-five years later, he stands as a leading portrait painter in the country, painting more portraits for leading universities and Fortune 500 companies than any other artist.

Growing up in an artistic family, McCready had a natural gift for drawing. His dad was an award-winning watercolor landscape artist, and his mom had a fine arts degree and loved painting portraits.

“I had a wonderful arts education by age nine without even realizing it,” said McCready, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and moved with his family to Whitewater, Wis., as a teenager.

Painting and sketching were his hobbies, something he’d always done. A favorite grade school teacher recognized his talents early on, and later when he took an art class during college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his professor asked if he’d considered an art degree. But McCready, a self-proclaimed realist, worried about being a starving artist and earned a degree in political science instead.

At age 31, ready for a career change and nothing to lose by trying, McCready painted a few portraits and sent them to top artists in the country.

“They told me I had talent and asked if I had the drive and determination to go with it,” said McCready, noting that portrait painting is one of the hardest forms of art.

The commissions started slowly. McCready’s first celebrity portrait was for Robert Redford in 1984. In the beginning, McCready focused on athletes, painting legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. Deciding to move away from the sports field, he found a niche for himself in portraits for universities and corporations.

McCready credits his career take-off to his wife, Anne Gray McCready.

“Anne is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “She motivated me to be the best I can be. She helped me get going, emotionally and economically. She’s still to this day my top advisor and art critic.”

By the late 1980s, McCready was receiving more than 100 commission requests each year.

In 2003, the National Associated Press featured an article on McCready’s career, picked up by 200-plus newspapers, putting McCready in the national spotlight. A subsequent article in the New York Times clinched his fame. After painting a portrait for actor George Clooney in 2011, the media explosion and attention became too much for McCready. His quiet life in Whitewater was interrupted by media requests and notoriety.

“The George Clooney portrait was life changing,” said McCready, who grants media interviews for his “hometown” news sources only.

While McCready originally thought his paintings would never go beyond Wisconsin, 90 percent of his work is now from out-of-state commissions. A partial list of more than 150 academic clients includes 25 portraits for Michigan, 11 for Wisconsin, 10 for UCLA and 10 for Purdue. He has corporate clients in more than 30 states.

He paints 12-15 portraits annually, choosing clients based on his personal preferences and interests, with priority given to past clients. He has 15-17 commissions already lined up for the next year and half.

The painting process begins with an in-person meeting in which McCready spends a couple of hours getting to know his subject and taking photos. Once the favorite photo is selected, he begins to paint. Portraits take 15-60 hours each, depending on the size and complexities. McCready paints for three to four hours a day.

In 2015, McCready decided to move from Whitewater to the Madison area to be closer to his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, settling in DeForest.

“Anne and I are amazed by this friendly, generous and kind community,” he said. “We are so happy to be here.”

McCready has turned his basement into his dream studio, a large, relaxing space with ample natural sunlight. He aims to paint for another 15-20 years, and says he has not yet reached his peak.

“As an artist, I’m never quite satisfied with my work,” he said. “There is still so much to learn.”

His studio holds stunning portraits of some of the most successful people in the country, but McCready’s all-time favorite painting hangs above the mantel in his home—a portrait of his son at age two. While McCready currently works on commissioned paintings only, he’s determined to make time within the next year to paint his granddaughter, who is approaching the same age as his son in the beloved mantel portrait.

McCready is thankful that he has been able to turn his hobby into a thriving career, and hopes he can serve as an inspiration to other local artists.