As a painter of commissioned portraits, I have had the pleasure of getting to know many intriguing people. The oil portrait painting of the Gondas has its own noteworthy story.

UCLA was building a Genetic Research Center. Funds were in place, thanks to the largest single donation the university had yet acquired. The Director of Development, Ms. Paula Golden, had done her usual superlative job. However, being more than thorough, she was on the lookout for yet another, even personal way to acknowledge Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Gonda. A portrait oil painting. To be unveiled at the opening of the center. Hmmm….

We became aware of something about the Gondas. They were from Hungary back in the dismal days of Nazis in the neighborhood. They took the name of a Catholic friend to escape persecution and get the heck out o’ there. At first they went to Venezuela, where they built a large enterprise in the construction industry. Then, with growing children to educate, they moved to the USA and built another business empire—this time in cattle. (Mr. Gonda told me later—“A lot of hungry cows.”) Then, when one of their sons needed backing in a promising business, Mr. Gonda traded his quadrupeds for airplanes for lease. Now they live in Beverly Hills with all four children and lots of granchildren nearby. They wanted to give back as thanks for their good destiny in this country. The American Dream.

When I visited them at their house, Mr. Gonda wanted to show me his bronze sculptures of Frederick Remington and the rest of his art collection. Then, the Mrs. served tea and we talked of the portrait. They wanted me to use a seven-year old photo for my reference, but Mr. Gonda had a mustache now which didn’t show in the photo. Gerry, my husband and photographer, took photos of him in the present so I could paint it in. Also in the photograph, was Mrs. Gonda’s ornately detailed lace and beaded jacket. She had me take that to my studio  so that I wouldn’t miss the detail.

The conception for the building that they funded was that teams of scientists and doctors will work together to wipe out neurological and genetic disease. data from around the world would be funnelled here to come up with medical solutions that help mankind as a whole. Pretty powerful stuff. All in all, this was turning into a very interesting project….

I got my painting done in plenty of time so that the Gondas and their children could all see and remark on it. (The children loved their mother, and their father was great but they thought I had taken out a couple too many “character” lines in the face. Mrs. Gonda loved what I did for the Mr. but wanted me to take out miniscule ridges in his upper coat sleeve. She said she never let him go out with wrinkles in his coat.)

When the building was finished—the Gonda (Goldschmied) Neuroscience and Genetic Research Center at the UCLA Medical Center— the portrait was introduced at a candle-lit dinner for fifty hand-picked luminaries, such as the Governor of California Elect’s wife and Michael Ovitz, Former CEO of Disney.  They asked me to speak and graciously received me.

The next day was the public opening and dedication accompanied by a 30-minute orchestral concert with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting one of his own creations—heralding a building to the future. Then a tour (with a pass through the ground-floor gallery and conference room, home of the now-celebrated portrait).

Wrapping up all loose ends, the Director of Develpment sent me a personal note from the Dean of the Medical School:

“On behalf of the UCLA?€ˆcommunity, I want to thank you once again for the magnificent portrait of Susan and Leslie Gonda. … How does an institution such as UCLA thank this unique couple for their generosity?… Your artistry spoke the words for us all, and will be enjoyed by visitors to the Gonda Center for many, many years to come.
“Gerald S. Levey, M.D.
“Provost, Medical Sciences”

Yes, I would say the Director of Development did her usual bang-up job.

 Jessica Rockwell, cousin to Norman Rockwell, has made her living as an artist all of her adult life. Early on, as a high school student, her gift in art was acknowledged with a full scholarship from the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program. She later received her BFA and MFA & travelled Europe extensively. She has specialized as a realistic oil portrait artist for the last 20 years. Over 100 of her portraits and an Emmy award-winning video on how she paints a portrait may be seen at You can email her for the price of your special portrait at or call her at 800-727-442-4443.

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