When Portland artist Robin Damore embarked on a photography assignment back in 2004, little did she know she'd end up with a long-lasting friendship with Nichelle Nichols, the 84-year-old African-American icon who portrayed Lt. Uhura on "Star Trek" during the 1960s and who will be a headlining guest at the upcoming Wizard World Portland Comic Con.
Damore, at the time, was shooting for now-deceased author Katherine Martin, who commissioned Damore to take photographs for a book called "Those Who Dare: Real People, Real Courage and What We Learn from Them." Her assignment was to get portraits of Nichols, one of two people she was shooting while in Los Angeles that year.
Damore didn't know much about Nichols upon their first meet there — she was just another person to photograph.
They quickly bonded, however, after Damore nudged her to get out of her sweat pants for the shoot in Nichols' backyard. Nichols had initially asked Damore to come back later — she had been on a late flight the night before and was tired, according to Damore.
"I said you know what ... just go ahead and take your time, I'll just sit here and wait for you," says Damore, who's lived in Portland the last 40 years. "An hour and a half later she came down looking like a goddess and we had the most fun shooting the pictures."
Nichols opened up and showed Damore videos from a vacation to Italy, even singing to her.
The connection could have ended there, but Damore was so enamored by one of the portraits she photographed of Nichols, she was compelled to paint it.
And that painting didn't just end up in a closet collecting dust, it traveled with her for a decade as part of her portfolio.
It's a vibrant painting depicting Nichols sitting down, looking untroubled, with a warm, welcoming smile on her face.
"Well over a million people have seen that painting," Damore says. She has taken it with her to shows all over the country, where she would hear stories of Nichols, the woman who was told by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that she was the first "non-stereotypical role portrayed by a black woman in television history" and also persuaded her at one point not to quit her role on "Star Trek" when she was considering Broadway instead.
"I heard stories of people who named their daughters after Nichelle," Damore says.
Damore wanted Nichols to see the painting, so 10 years ago she reached out to Nichols' sister Marion, who then visited Damore's studio. Damore was considering giving the painting to Nichols.
At that time, Marion said Nichelle wouldn't like the way her neck looked. "I didn't really do the painting for her, I did it for me. So I didn't (give the painting to her)," Damore says.
She continued to show the painting at various festivals and art shows over the years, including at Festival of Arts and Pageant of Masters in Laguna Beach, California, where Damore was selected to show. She said onlookers were taken aback by the painting.
"I started thinking, I hadn't seen her since the photo shoot. Maybe I should show her, 10 years later," Damore says.
So when Nichols returned for Rose City Comic Con in September 2015, Damore reached out again to Nichols' sister.
"I got ahold of her sister, and her sister said, 'I do remember you, and I remember that painting and remember saying that about her neck,'" Damore says.
But she said the neck issue wouldn't matter as much now. That year, Nichols suffered a stroke, somewhat impairing her short-term memory, Damore says, adding that it caused Nichols to care about things differently than she did before. So she set up a meeting at her studio in Portland in the Pearl District, which she recently got rid of due to rise in rent (she was there for 17 years, but recently built a new studio at her Vancouver, Washington, home). That evening in 2015, she and her husband made dinner for Nichols and her caregiver.
"So they came into the studio and unveiled the painting for her, and she wept," Damore says. In exchange for the painting, Damore hoped to get the big orange coral necklace that Nichols is seen wearing in the painting, but they could never find it.
Nichols didn't take the painting right away — Damore then drove down to Los Angeles to unveil it again at Nichols' home in February 2016. It's caught on video so that Nichols wouldn't forget, viewable on YouTube with more than 11,000 views.
One person who viewed the video was a curator for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. It's considering acquiring the painting of Nichols, which currently hangs in her living room.
"What they said is that they really like to acquire paintings where there is a relationship between the painter and her subject. They could see that through the video," Damore says.
The acquisition is still being discussed, but Damore is thrilled about the possibility. If it does, the two would deliver the painting together.
"There (is) so much love out there for her in the world and I vicariously got a piece of that," Damore says.
Nichols will appear at Wizard World Portland Comic Con, Feb. 17-19 at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Via email, she called the painting one of her "most cherished gifts."
On how how life has turned out, Nichols says: "Life takes you down paths you can never really predict."
The actress thought she would be better known as a singer or Broadway musician. "Sci-fi TV wasn't even on my radar."
But Nichols isn't done yet. She says she thinks she has another movie concept up her sleeve.
"A story I've been working on for a long time. Stay tuned," she says.
Watch Nichelle Nichols' reaction to the painting: www.tinyurl.com/h3q7j4b