Portrait sparks quest for a 'Ventura Code'

— Chalk it up to "The Da Vinci Code," but folks in Minnesota's Capitol are squinting for hidden meanings in a new portrait of ex-Gov. Jesse Ventura.

For the state's most colorful governor ever, the painting unveiled last month is fairly traditional. That may be why, as tour guides note, many viewers are looking for more.

Artist Steve Cepello isn't revealing any secrets, but he also isn't discouraging the hunt.

"A magician can never say anything about his magic," said Cepello, like Ventura a former professional wrestler. "I'm not going to deny or say that there isn't anything there because there could be. There could be."

To be sure, the painting is full of obvious symbols.

Behind Ventura, viewers can plainly see a light rail train, a pet project of Ventura's, and there are Navy jump wings on the ex-SEAL's lapel. Ventura's hand rests on a copy of Auguste Rodin's sculpture, "The Thinker," a nod to one of his campaign ads.

But some tourists are sure they see cursive letters in the folds of Ventura's sleeve. A few swear they see someone else depicted in Ventura's tie.

Among the questions raised by the painting:

l Why was Cepello quoted by reporters before the unveiling saying it would have references to Ventura's wrestling career if it does not?

Cepello said he was misunderstood.

l Is there any message on Ventura's sleeve?

Look hard enough, and it seems one can just about make out letters in the folds of a suit sleeve. Could they be W-W-F, representing Ventura's old employer?

l How about the face on the portrait's "The Thinker." He appears to have a mustache in the painting, unlike in the original. Is someone else depicted?

Bill Hillsman, the adman who created the Thinker spot for Ventura's '98 campaign, thinks the figure in the painting looks a little like Cepello himself, a large man with long golden hair and a prominent mustache.

"Maybe the artist paints in little pictures of himself?" he wondered.

No, Cepello answered, there is no mustache on his Thinker, only a pushed-up lip.

Could there be another face in the folds of Ventura's American flag tie? Like one of those illusion posters: Stare long enough and a head seems to jump out at you.

Cepello said he did joke with Ventura about hidden messages. He said he told Ventura he used degenerative oil and, eventually, "it will begin to deteriorate, revealing a naked Jesse with a pink boa."

That, at least, might stop the squinting.

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