Robin Damore isn’t a devoted Star Trek fan. In fact, the artist from Portland, Oregon, is better known for her oil portraits and an annual Santa Claus painting. And it wasn’t even painting that connected her to Star Trek – it was a photo assignment a dozen years ago for a 2004 book called Those Who Dare: Real People, Real Courage and What We Learn from Them, by Katherine Martin.
One of the subjects in that book was Nichelle Nichols, and Damore's photos accompany a chapter about the remarkable life of the woman who portrayed Lt. Uhura. Photographer (and then-budding portrait artist) Damore was so taken with Nichols that she decided to do a painting based on a photo from that session.
“I was hired to go to L.A. to shoot Nichelle Nichols,” Damore recalls. “I didn’t really know who she was. I went to her house and waited while she got ready, and then she appeared. She comes down looking like a goddess. I shot a bunch of pictures of her outside. We had a ball. We really hit it off together.”
Damore started as a photographer and advertising agency owner, honing her skills with the help of photographer friends who critiqued her early photography portrait work. “They would pick two that were acceptable out of a roll of 36,” Damore says. “And that’s how I learned to work out the problems of light, composition and creating foreground in a photograph.”
“Later, I started drawing every day,” she continues, “drawing in meetings and drawing with the kids. And I got to the point where I wondered if I could paint as well."
Damore took a one-week painting class in Seattle, and then a three-week intensive class with a Russian master painter in New York. Returning from New York, she was inspired to paint a portrait of Nichols using one of her favorite images from the shoot as her resource material. The portrait took shape in a temporary painting studio she designed into one of the model homes of a homebuilder’s tour in Portland.
“I worked on this painting of Nichelle as tens of thousands of people toured the house through all of August,” Damore explains. “And over and over people would recognize her. ‘Oh, my gosh! That’s Nichelle Nichols! How did you meet her?’ Everyone’s got a story about growing up and watching the show, and several people told me they had named their daughters after her.”
While the original painting was finished a decade ago, Damore finally arranged to show it to Nichols when she came to the Portland area for a comic convention in 2015. During a stop at the artist’s studio, Nichols saw for herself what the artist had completed years before.
“She cried when she saw the painting and said, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful and I’ve got to have it,’” and so it hangs today in Nichols’ California home. That conversation inspired another photo session, and another work of art.
“We were in my shooting studio, the backdrop and lights were already set up,” Damore explains. “And she immediately knew what to do. She just knows the camera. She knows what angles are good. She has such beautiful, expressive hands. I decided to add this gold and turquoise scarf. She draped this scarf over herself and created this incredible flair and personality, and she transformed herself into ‘royalty’ before my eyes. I shot a couple hundred photographs over the course of 20 minutes.” Later, Nichols and Damore decided which pose would work best as a new portrait.
Thirteen years after the original portrait, Damore has just finished another life-size painting of an older and even wiser Nichols using an approach to realism based on the painting style of the old masters. The final brushstrokes were applied last month.
The artist had so many requests for prints that she's decided to offer two limited-edition prints in two sizes: small (13”x19”) and large (17”x22”). Interested fans can email Damore directly (Robin@RobinDamore.com).
“People ask me all the time how long it takes to do a painting,” Damore says. “I usually say, ‘It depends on how much I suffer,’ but this painting was like butter – no suffering – just delicious. This most recent painting of Nichelle is a thing of beauty. It took only 2.5 weeks to complete. A photo of the new painting has already been shared nearly 12,000 times on social media. That’s the biggest response I’ve ever had to anything I’ve ever done. I think this is my best work to date,”
Dave Arland (he/him) has been a Nichelle Nichols fan since 1972, when he first saw Star Trek in syndication in Indianapolis.