For nearly a quarter of a century, journalist/educator John C. Tibbetts spent most of his weekends hobnobbing with actors and filmmakers on Hollywood junkets.
As a broadcast movie critic — over the years he has appeared on KSHB-TV, KCTV5, KXTR-FM, and KCUR-FM — he would be flown to a location (usually Los Angeles or New York) to view a new film and interview its stars and behind-the-camera creators.
But Tibbetts, who now teaches film at the University of Kansas, did something extra on these trips. With ink and watercolors he created portraits of the famous folk he interviewed. What’s more, his subjects invariably autographed his finished work.
Tibbetts has produced hundreds of these portraits, a selection of which make up the exhibit Stargazing , running through January 31, 2014 at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
Though known mostly as a movie reviewer, educator, and author of books on a variety of subjects, Tibbetts’ original love was art. He received his undergraduate degree in in design and has long been obsessed with portraiture: “I just have this itch to draw faces, famous or not. My hand just gravitates toward paper and brushes.”
The first of his celebrity portraits was drawn 48 years ago when the native of Lansing, Kansas, was a sophomore at KU. “I drew a picture of author Ray Bradbury – my way of thanking him for the pleasure his work had given me – and mailed it to him. Quite unexpectedly, he returned it to me with a really nice comment and signature.”
In the early 1980s, when he began reviewing films for Kansas City TV and radio stations, Tibbetts found himself regularly doing face-to-face interviews with famous actors (also directors, musicians, writers, and others). That was when his portrait painting kicked into high gear.
Most of his artwork was created in hotel rooms the night before a junket, after Tibbetts learned which actors and filmmakers he’d be interviewing.
“I always travel with paper, brush, ink, and gouache, and after seeing the next day’s schedule I’ll order room service and stay up late drawing.”
Usually he worked from photos in the movie’s press kit but occasionally — as with portraits of Tom Selleck and Sissy Spacek — he has drawn from life. He counts those efforts as his most satisfying.
Often the portraits were still damp when their subjects signed them.
“Lots of the subjects wanted me to send them a copy of the artwork – which, by the way, is the best way ever to get the home addresses of movie stars,” he says.
Over the years the publicists for the Hollywood studios came to appreciate and encourage Tibbett’s unique approach to interviewing. Some stars — like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Douglas — began looking forward to seeing Tibbetts’ latest portrait of them.
“I’d like to think they love my work,” Tibbetts says. “Or maybe they were just being strategically polite.”
But Tibbetts also carried weight as the only member of the press corps with a Ph.D. in film studies. His subjects knew they could hold an informed and intelligent conversation with him — about movies or just about anything else.
In fact, Tibbetts says, movie stars are among the least interesting people he interviews.
“Cinematographers are the best,” he says. “They’re rarely made available for interviews, but for insights into moviemaking they can’t be beat. They’re always on the set and they become experts on everything from story construction to acting, set design … every aspect of the process.”
Also represented in Stargazing are his portraits of musicians, composers, and famous authors.
Tibbetts is an associate professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and film theory and aesthetics. He has written and illustrated 10 books, among them The Gothic Imagination, Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography, Schumann: A Chorus of Voices, and the three-volume American Classic Screen. He is currently working on a book about the celebrated Australian film director Peter Weir. His radio series The World of Robert Schumann and Piano Portraits have been aired worldwide on the WFMT Radio Network. An accomplished pianist, he has often provided musical accompaniment for screenings of silent films.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.