Smithsonian associate curator Brandon Fortune calls Lenz’s work visual poetry. “David distills and crystallizes images the way poets distill and crystallize words,” she says.
“David combines the highest standards of craftsmanship and design—the quality is painstaking and laborious and uncompromising—with subject matter that is deeply humane,” adds University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art history professor Jeffrey Hayes.
In Lenz’s painting, Mrs. Shriver is at her Cape Cod, Massachusetts, home surrounded by four Special Olympics athletes and a Best Buddies Ambassador—(from left to right) Airika Straka of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin; Katie Meade of Des Moines, Iowa; Andy Leonard of Reynoldsburg, Ohio; Loretta Claiborne of York, Pennsylvania; and Marty Sheets of Greensboro, North Carolina. With a broad smile on her face and her arm draped over Sheets’ shoulder, she is clearly enjoying being with him. “The very act of inviting people with intellectual disabilities into the painting mirrors the essence of Mrs. Shriver’s work: understanding and inclusion,” says Lenz.
Each of the athletes has a special story to tell. Straka saved her mother’s life by answering a cell phone at her home for the first time. The school called to check on why she and her sister, who also has special needs, were not in school. Her mother had gone into diabetic shock. She gave enough information for the school to call an ambulance. Straka is a tiny girl with a lot of spunk who always tries her best at bowling, snowshoeing and track and does not give up.
Meade introduced the Irish rock band U2 at the Special Olympics World Games in Ireland and spoke at a Special Olympics conference in Panama. She is recognized across Iowa as a Best Buddies Friendship Ambassador for the state. Meade has made friends from around the world and spoken to countless people about people with disabilities. She was recognized at the Annual Best Buddies Ball with the Spirit of Friendship Award for her dedication to the mission of friendship for people with intellectual disabilities.
Leonard is one of the strongest men in the world in his powerlifting weight class and has carved a niche for himself in the Special Olympics record books. He’s a charter member of the Pennsylvania Special Olympics Hall of Fame and the only Special Olympics athlete to hold a non-Special Olympics national title in the American Drug-Free Powerlifting Association. As a child, his Vietnamese village was destroyed during the Vietnam War. Leonard and his four brothers and sisters were put into an orphanage. His siblings soon left and he never saw them again. He was evacuated just before Saigon fell to the Viet Cong and taken to the United States, where he was adopted by a couple in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. His story continues to inspire people all over the country.
Claiborne is the subject of a Disney movie, “The Loretta Claiborne Story.” She appeared on “Oprah” to promote the film and introduced President Clinton at the Special Olympics World Games. She was inducted into the Women in Sports Hall of Fame. A medical and educational facility in York, Pennsylvania was named in her honor by the community. She has competed in six Special Olympic World Games and won gold, silver and bronze medals in running, bowling and figure skating. She was the first Special Olympics athlete to run the Boston Marathon and has participated in more than 25 marathons.
Sheets was chosen to sit in the Presidential Box with President Bill Clinton at the 1995 Special Olympics World Summer Games. He’s met many celebrities and world figures, including tennis player Arthur Ashe and boxer Evander Holyfield. He received the 2006 PGA Tour Volunteer of the Year award, the highest honor the PGA Tour can bestow upon a volunteer. A golf and powerlifting athlete, he has won more than 150 medals at local, state and international Special Olympics competitions. For 15 years, he’s volunteered at Greensboro’s professional golf tournament, where players remember him from year to year.
Today, Shriver is still working—every day—as an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. Her vision to provide sports training and athletic competition for people with intellectual disabilities has grown from 1,000 special-needs athletes from the United States and Canada competing in Chicago into an international movement with 2.8 million athletes competing in 30 sports in more than 150 countries worldwide.
It was gratitude for Mrs. Shriver that Lenz felt as he worked on the portrait. “I am so thankful for all the work she has done over the years. The world is a more welcoming place for people like Sam because of her,” says Lenz. “It’s my hope that this painting, with its message of Mrs. Shriver’s life and legacy, can continue to help the world understand and include all people with intellectual disabilities.”