A closeup of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper from "The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy" at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas.
If you haven’t seen the recent paintings by the artist formerly known as President George W. Bush, you can find them collected in a new book called “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.” It’s just become a New York Times best seller. The proceeds from sales will go to a nonprofit organization that helps veterans and their families recover and rebuild from America’s post-Sept. 11 wars — otherwise known as Bush’s disastrous venture in the Middle East.
If the notion of Bush as a portrait painter is one your brain has trouble accommodating, you are not alone. Even his wife, Laura, admitted to some difficulty in her foreword to the book.
In the early days of her marriage, she relates, she would have found his election to the presidency less improbable than his artistic achievements. “If someone said, ‘One day you will be writing a foreword for a book that includes George’s paintings,’ I would have said, ‘No way.’”
George W. Bush’s back, George W. Bush’s toes. Painting by former president George W. Bush of the family sheepdog.
But the bigger surprise is that Bush paints well. His early works, images of which circulated on the internet in 2013, weren’t bad: one showed Bush’s toes and knees peeking from his bath water, another featured his naked back in the shower, with his all-too-familiar visage peering out from a shaving mirror. There were also some paintings of family pets: dogs and cats with enviably cushy lives.
They were pretty easy for art critics to dismiss as banal, yet they had a warmth and wit that reflected a side of Bush his political critics had never acknowledged.
A foray into portraiture followed, with a show of world leaders he had painted from photographs — Stephen Harper, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, Vladimir V. Putin and others — that revealed a new sophistication of depth and color. In 2014, the senior art critic for New York magazine, Jerry Saltz, confessed to misunderestimating the former president.
“When I first saw his paintings, I was sure I would hate them,” Saltz told CNN, but he found in them “something innocent, sincere, earnest, almost childlike.”
Former US President George W. Bush stands next to one of the veterans featured in the exhibit, Johnnie Yellock, at a press preview.
As for the work in the new book, no less than The New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, can barely hide his surprise when describing the quality as astonishingly high, the portraits “honestly observed and persuasively alive.”
Why the shock and awe? Because Bush’s artistic talent goes against the stereotype we have of him. (Try to picture Barack Obama do-si-do-ing at a square dance or, for that matter, clearing brush at a ranch.) Until last November, at any rate, the president known as W. was the embodiment of the smart-set philistine. Despite his years at Yale and Harvard, he always remained the West Texas rich kid who would be proud to confuse Picasso with Pizarro. (You’d get whupped in Midland if you didn’t.)
It was fine for Bush’s mother and his wife to promote the reading of books. But Bush himself worked overtime to make sure no one could mistake him for a pointy-headed intellectual. He painted himself into a corner.
Former US president George W. Bush has released a book featuring a series of 66 portraits of wounded or traumatized veterans he has met who served in the US military in Iraq or Afghanistan following the attacks on September 11, 2001.
LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images
What happened next provides a window into the privileges of presidential life, along with an escape hatch from it. The Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, stopping by for a visit in 2012, suggested that Bush check out Winston Churchill’s “Painting as a Pastime.” Bush, who said he had been feeling “antsy,” found himself inspired.
He didn’t have to sign up for classes at a local art school or the museum, of course. Instead, he took private lessons from a prominent Dallas artist named Gail Norfleet. Norfleet wrought a change in Bush’s worldview. He began to see the colors even in shadows, the subtle shifts of palette in a clear blue sky.
“I was getting comfortable with the concepts of values and tones,” Bush writes in the introduction to his book. Norfleet also thoughtfully introduced the once monochromatic president to her mentor, another well-known Dallas artist named Roger Winter, and it was he who gave Bush the idea to paint world leaders.
Bush also consulted a landscape painter, Jim Woodson, whose visions of the vast, untouched terrain of New Mexico are nothing like the conventional bluebonnet vistas many still associate with Texas art. It was Woodson who introduced Bush to, among other things, larger canvases and thicker paint, and guided him toward a more complex view of the world about him.
Paintings of wounded US military veterans painted by former US President George W. Bush hang in "Portraits of Courage", a new exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas, on February 28, 2017.
LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images
Through Woodson, Bush met Sedrick Huckaby, a Fort Worth-born painter whose breathtaking canvases evoke black life in America with all the power and verve of the British portrait artist Lucian Freud. It was Huckaby who suggested that the former president paint people whom he knew, but who were strangers to others.
Hence the veterans in “Portraits of Courage.” Bush discovered what many who paint discover: that as he worked on their portraits, he came to understand his sitters, and their pain, as well as their love for one another.
A white woman in her 70s, a black man in his 40s and an older white man with a love for the wide-open spaces; that’s who taught President George W. Bush the transformative power of art.
If only they’d gotten to him sooner.
(Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly, is a contributing opinion writer.)
This article was sourced from http://thealumninews.org