5th August 2019, Pearson International Airport. I was waiting impatiently to finally board my twice-delayed flight to New York when my phone started ringing. At the other end was a quiet woman who spoke quickly as she found her way to her job offer. Apparently she was the “ambassador” of a very unusual American master portrait. I was recommended by a number of mutual friends. She wanted me to drop everything I did and be with her for a few days so I could document what she called “the experience of my life”. I was fascinated.
This mysterious caller – better known as Rebecca Ethan as I was later to find out – didn’t give me a lot of information about the job or what I was actually going to document. She also didn’t give me time to respond before offering me three times my regular price and a contract waiting if I accepted. How could I say no? I didn’t know then, but this job turned out to be one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. I was supposed to meet an eccentric, talented portrait artist who was pulling the veil on modern high society and what it meant to be really well connected.
Rebecca had a contract on me in my email the next day that included a nondisclosure agreement as well as a set of instructions for boarding the private jet that would be waiting at Buttonville Municipal Airport to fly us to San Antonio. I had never been to Texas before, but when Rebecca met me she let me know we wouldn’t be staying in Texas long. We flew down to meet Master portrait artist Kevin Saunders and have his studio equipment and mobile showroom loaded onto the plane. Then we’d make a quick flight back to Toronto that evening so they could meet up for something they colloquially called “The Grand Ol ‘Portrait Party”.
When I got on board Bombardier Global Jet, I used the time with Rebecca to concentrate on asking her more about herself and the coming week. It found that Rebecca was the daughter of a wealthy Quebec real estate agent who was immersed in art history and gathered a group of wealthy, well-connected Torontoers to book a portrait artist for four days of unlimited portrait sessions. Why? Because she had a cousin who lived in San Antonio who told her about this aspiring artist, Kevin Saunders, who was going to take the world by storm. Kevin was, in her opinion, one of those rare talents that only shows up every few centuries – and she wasn’t wrong. After all, the Canadians had seen Yousuf Karsh, so they knew what they were seeing in Kevin.
Kevin, the definition of a modern Renaissance man, dropped out of high school to drive dolly cross-country, then studied anatomy in college – with the intent of becoming a doctor – before giving up on that goal to become an Olympic sailing hope and later an orchestral musician . Kevin had transitioned into portrait photography later in his life after designing and selling an airplane elevator concept for $ 1.5 million to Boeing and building a bespoke luxury bike brand. Bored of his business activities, he turned his focus to his lifelong love of portraiture and set himself the goal of becoming the Yousef Karsh of this century. He spent many years honing his craft.
Kevin quickly made fame at the start of the pandemic in the Southern United States, producing a number of great fine art portraits for larger-than-life American business figures such as Henry Cisneros, Paula Gold-Williams, David Bohne, Gordon Hartman, Ben Peavy, and even Will Hurd and Charlie Gonzalez of the former congressman. That came after that trip and Rebecca and her cousin knew something I didn’t know. I wanted to find out why. At least that’s what I was wondering when Kevin got on the plane.
Kevin, an older but sturdy-looking man of sixty-four, had the typical white hair of a man his age, but the eyes of a much younger one. I will never forget that piercing first look as it shot in my way as if he already knew me. As soon as he reached out to me, I knew immediately that I had met a unique person.
Kevin wanted to start our conversation by asking about myself and my work before moving on to his own art and philosophy of capturing amazing portraits. “If I am the person you trust to tell your story in a portrait so that it will live on for generations,” he told me, “then I have to be able to make a film with a picture. My portraits are more than just art to worship ancestral homeland. If a family is meaningful enough to have a story to live on in a legacy – and you and I know most don’t – then whoever gets into that story becomes part of an intergenerational story. ”That was the main idea behind this trip and why so many wealthy families and individuals took Rebecca at her word when she said, “Trust me, this guy goes everywhere”.
I saw Kevin two days later when he showed me his mobile portrait studio. Although it was just being set up in a quiet rented space in North York, the place had a warmth and calm that was unusual for portrait studios. It also had that vibrant energy that made me smile. Kevin told me that people can feel the energy in one place and he used this to his advantage by setting the tone of a session before his clients walked through his door.
The equipment was amazingly professional, well beyond anything I would have thought necessary for a portrait shoot. There were vintage movie lights like those you’d see from the 1940s and 50s and a large “view camera” that looked like something out of Star Trek. It all seemed complicated, but when Kevin showed me how it worked, it was incredibly easy. “In practice, it’s the same as the big wooden cameras 100 years ago,” said Kevin, “but it has a 150-megapixel sensor instead of 11 x 14-inch film.” I’d never seen anything like it.
I’ve sat in a lot of “photo shoots” and what I saw in a portrait session with Kevin was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Kevin looked at the subjects from different angles while the subjects studied the portraits and had a conversation. It took half an hour or 45 minutes, and then there seemed to be a “perfect time” when the subjects seemed ready to step in front of the camera.
I think that really made him the best. The whole process of taking portraits was truly amazing to watch. I was used to seeing photographers take hundreds of photos on a photoshoot, and while Kevin was using a camera, it was simply the tool he used to capture the information he’d gleaned from studying his clients beforehand. Somehow, he composed his portraits in advance and guided the subjects to give him the emotions he needed to project an image onto a portrait print.
After leaving the portrait shoot, I didn’t see Kevin again until two months later I flew back to Texas with Rebecca to pick up the portraits. When I finally got to Kevin’s studio, I had the chance to see what he was doing with his off-site artistry. While it took very little time to create the original photos in Toronto, Kevin spent days – and in some cases – weeks doing highly detailed and precise artistic work to create a truly stunning portrait.
Kevin showed me some of his trade secrets, and I can understand why he mentioned his anatomy degree. Kevin took the imperfections that clients wanted fixed and did some kind of digital alchemy that was incredible. I saw the “before” and “after” and when I saw the finished product for Rebecca, my jaw dropped. Kevin said, “If I were to paint you, I wouldn’t put these details in the picture. So when I paint with light I use the same interpretation and you can choose how you want to be remembered. ”What struck me was the fact that the final images didn’t look“ Photoshoped ”, just“ right ”.
This is perhaps his best kept trade secret. He uses his talent and his previous life experience as a doctor to change his portraits in such a way that the characters portrayed come to life. It was then that I realized that he was reviving a human tradition that our modernization had lost – the portrait of the fine arts.
Kevin’s work is visible below www.kgsstudios.com where you can see his entire portfolio.