Thirteen-year-old Barbara Joy “B.J.” Tillman has always admired the nation’s first family, hoping to meet Michelle Obama and her two daughters some day.
On Thursday, she got at least part of her wish as the commissioned artist for a gift that she presented to Mrs. Obama at the First Lady’s Luncheon in Washington. The 11-by-24-inch painting is an acrylic, brown-shaded, freestyle rendering of Malia and Sasha Obama in their toddler years, a memory B.J. knew their mother would always cherish.
“She’s a very good role model and I just love everything she does,” B.J. said before leaving Columbus with her mother and grandmother for the big event. “And she’s a great mother.”
B.J., who celebrates her 13th birthday today, is the daughter of Dr. Chip Tillman, a local physician, and Audrey Boone Tillman, executive vice president and general counsel at Aflac. She is a seventh-grader at St. Luke School and already an accomplished local artist who has painted projects for various churches and organizations.
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The painting of the Obama girls was commissioned by The Congressional Club, which consists of the spouses of members of Congress, heads of state and former first ladies. The group coordinates the annual First Lady’s Luncheon, and this year’s event was chaired by Muscogee County Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop, the wife of Congressman Sanford Bishop. About 1,850 people were expected to attend.
“The luncheon has a 104-year history and, of course Mrs. Obama, being our first African-American first lady, we are certainly proud of her, and her tenure has just been wonderful,” Creighton Bishop said Wednesday before the event. “We are excited about this luncheon, but we hate to see her go.”
She said she was looking for something special to give Obama on her departure from the White House, and she commissioned B.J. because she was impressed with some of her paintings around town. She gave the girl freedom to be creative with the project and she is pleased with the results, she said. The painting was shipped to Washington and taken apart weeks in advance for security clearance, but Creighton Bishop saw it ahead of time.
“I was in tears, and I was just amazed at her talent,” she said. “She put a lot of time into it, and I just knew Mrs. Obama would like it.”
B.J. said it has been an unbelievable experience, and she feels blessed to have painted Malia and Sasha, whom she considers role models.
“I really like their style, being an artist and all, and I really like their fashion, too,” she said.
Audrey Tillman said B.J. discovered her talent at about 5 or 6 years old, while attending an art camp at Columbus State University. The instructor noticed that she had a gift for drawing portraits, which led to private art lessons with Mark Lucas, a local portraiture specialist.
The mother said she had no idea what her daughter would produce when she accepted the job, but she knew it would be unique and expressive. She’s proud of what B.J. has accomplished and believes doing the painting for Mrs. Obama has been a life-changing experience.
“It’s very much God-given because my husband and I can’t paint a thing,” she said of her daughter’s talent. “It’s like someone who can sing beautifully, and no one in their family can sing, no one knows where it came from. It’s exactly like that, except her art is her painting.”
In addition to B.J., Creighton Bishop also enlisted the help of other local artists. She said Fred Fussell did the artwork for the luncheon’s program and his wife, Cathy, made a quilt based on the work of Alma Thomas, a famous black expressionist painter and art educator who was born in Columbus.
Creighton Bishop said Obama has one made by Thomas at the White House, but she will have to leave it behind. So Fussell created a replica that she can take with her.
The theme of the luncheon was Posh Peach: Southern Hospitality. “And so, we’re just showcasing Georgia crops, and Georgia talent and Georgia folks, not from just Columbus, but all over the state.”
For more on this subject, check out Alva James-Johnson’s column, “Afro Puffs in the White House.”