Stars aligned for portrait’s journey

By Steve Penhollow

The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Peter Stichbury, a New Zealand artist, painted a portrait of Zach Klein based on an Internet photo. A photo of Fort Wayne native Zach Klein online inspired a New Zealand artist to paint this portrait of him. And a strange story branches off from there …

Serendipity strikes different people different ways.

Some people think it’s merely amusing. Others see something spiritual in it.

Serendipity, which I take to mean extraordinary, advantageous coincidence, can brighten up your day or add meaning to your life, depending on who you are.

What follows is a story of serendipity that seems serendipitously designed for Fort Wayne residents.

It starts with Zach Klein, the Bishop Luers High School grad who moved to New York, co-founded the Web sites CollegeHumor, Busted Tees and Vimeo, and then sold them all to Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp in 2006.

In January 2008, Klein received an unsolicited e-mail from Peter Stichbury, a New Zealand artist unknown to him. Stichbury had run across a photo of Klein on a Web site and asked for permission to paint a portrait based on the image.

“It was unusual, but I was flattered by the request,” Klein wrote in an e-mail.

Permission was granted, and Stichbury went ahead with his portrait, a little piece of a larger whole.

Stichbury said his work these days is “immersed in cyberspace identity.”

“To me, it was fascinating how the entrepreneurial Mr. Klein had constructed such an extremely elaborate and detailed Internet persona using sites like Vimeo, Tumblr and Flickr, etc.,” he said in an e-mail.

As near as I can figure, Stichbury’s portraits are attempts to artistically render not just single images, but the comprehensive if convoluted way people represent themselves on the Web.

A year after Stichbury first contacted Klein, the finished work was exhibited in a giant art show at the Los Angeles Convention Center called ART LA.

It was there that Kate Keller, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based textile designer, fell instantaneously in love with Stichbury’s portrait of Klein.

“My friend rolled her eyes at me,” Keller said by phone. “I guess it takes a certain aesthetic sense to appreciate it.

“But my (life) partner came over and said, ‘I want to show you something,’ and she led me to that same piece,” she said.

Keller and her partner put a hold on the piece even though two people had already done so.

Which is to say, if Keller was going to own the piece, she’d need the other two candidates to bow out.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said about her mind-set in the ensuing days of waiting. “I did some research on the artist on the Internet and came across Zach’s home page and Flickr page. The Flickr page had the painting on it.”

The effect of the painting on Keller was ineffable and inexpressible, two words that might describe the effect of all paintings on the people who love them.

“The piece was nostalgic in a way,” she said. “It felt sort of comfortable.”

Eventually, the L.A. gallery owner did call and offer them the piece.

Here’s where things got a little weird.

Keller had been corresponding with Klein by e-mail, and eventually the subject of Klein’s hometown came up. Keller was startled to discover that Klein, with whom she had never corresponded before seeing his portrait, was from Fort Wayne.

She was startled because that’s where she’s from, too.

Keller is a graduate of Homestead High School.

And on the same day that Keller visited the exhibit, Klein had also flown in for a peek. They determined they’d missed each other by mere minutes.

Two people living on opposite coasts of this country find common ground and uncommon congruence thanks to the artistic efforts of a man living in New Zealand.

Sure sounds serendipitous, however you define it.

Keller defines it as more than merely entertaining.

“It happens to me all the time,” she said. “Some people are really in tune. I don’t know. I am very sensitive. It’s not something I can explain.”

Klein also sees consequence in coincidence.

“Serendipity to me is the manifestation of synchronicity,” he wrote. “We’ve all made and will continue to make a tremendous number of decisions that ultimately put us in proximity with other people who’ve made a similar set of choices. I believe that most events in the world aren’t random at all, they’re likely. Still, despite knowing this and believing it to be a factor, I’m completely astounded by the case of Kate buying my portrait.”

Peter Stichbury