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Painting the Military

By: Michael Taube
May 19, 2017

hile politics and painting don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, a select group of world leaders have made painting their pastime. Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Sir Winston Churchill, and Edi Rama have recently added to their ranks the 43rd U.S. President, George W. Bush. He’s still learning, and still improving his understanding of light, perspective, and color, but he’s made significant strides in his few years of artistic experimentation. His new book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, includes a four-panel mural and 66 paintings of men and women in the U.S. military that he’s come to meet, know, and admire.

“The artist known as W,” as several publications have affectionately called him, found his way into a world of oil on canvas quite by accident. In March 2012, historian John Lewis Gaddis visited Bush at his Dallas office during a book promotion tour. The conversation eventually shifted to Churchill’s famous essay, “Painting as a Pastime,” which the Yale University professor had recommended to his students. Although Bush admitted to being “an art-agnostic all my life,” he read the essay because of his “admiration for Churchill,” and immediately became inspired.

Bush’s journey started when Pam Nelson, an artist and family friend, recommended the services of her friend Gail Norfleet, a “notable and talented Dallas artist.” When she asked him about immediate objectives, he said, “Gail, there’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body. Your job is to liberate him.”

After a bit of hemming and hawing, the Rembrandt-to-be selected white paint and Burnt Umber (he had never heard of the latter color, but “liked the name, which reminded me of Mother’s cooking”) and successfully painted a cube. This was followed by a watermelon, and an apple. He moved on to animals and landscapes, following his teacher’s advice “to paint what I liked.” Upon the suggestion of Norfleet’s mentor, Roger Winter, he painted portraits of world leaders including Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, Canada’s Stephen Harper, and others.

He has also worked with Texas Christian University art professor Jim Woodson, who taught him to “limit my palette to two reds, two yellows, phthalo blue, and white, and I learned to mix colors from the primaries.” This advice helped immensely in his paintings of cacti, water lilies, and hats. He also followed Woodson’s recommended technique of impasto, which involves “larger canvases, larger brushes, and larger amounts of paint.”

Bush has “been painting ever since.” His quest to become “a student of art” inspired him to take an online art history course at the Museum of Modern Art. His book highlights the artists most influential on his artistic flair and painting style—those of the Impressionist period, and the contemporary artists Lucien Freud, Jamie Wyeth, and Fairfield Porter.

The inspiration for Portraits of Courage came from his recent association with artist Sedrick Huckaby, who suggested that Bush “paint people whom I knew but others didn’t.” This led the president to start painting some of the wounded warriors he met during W100K mountain bike rides and Warrior Open golf tournaments.

The process, which began in Sept. 2015, was a fascinating one. Bush studied their “stories and photographs,” and gave serious consideration to “their backgrounds, their time in the military, and the issues they dealt with as a result of combat.” This included “visible injuries” as well as “invisible wounds such as post-traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).”

As for the paintings, they are “closely cropped portraits that I hope give viewers a sense of the remarkable character of these men and women.” He wanted “to reflect the energy of an amputee playing golf,” for instance, along with “the camaraderie that these brothers and sisters in arms feel for one another, the power of a loving relationship between husband and wife.” While fully aware that he’s still a “novice,” his goal was to ensure that “each painting was done with a lot of care and respect.”

Bush’s artistic style, which combines elements of post-Impressionism and contemporary realism, captures each American warrior in a unique and personal fashion. The eyes of most of his subjects are piercing. The combination of light and shade creates an eye-popping mixture of skin tone. The subtle brush strokes and attention to detail bring each subject magically to life.

There are stunning portraits of Staff Sergeant Timothy Brown (who wears a prosthetic), Staff Sergeant Robert Dove and Sergeant First Class John Faulkenberry (playing golf with missing arms and legs), and Staff Sergeant Scott P. Lilley (playing with his young daughter). Individual scenes of Sergeant Daniel Casara, Master Sergeant Israel Del Toro Jr., Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gade, Sergeant Saul Martinez and Sergeant Leslie Zimmerman stand out for the use of color, light, shade, and perspective. Even Bush makes an appearance in a dance with First Lieutenant Melissa Stockwell.

These portraits aren’t in the same class as the Old Masters—or many of the newer ones. But there’s no doubt that Bush has the determination and talent to make art that people will want to see, irrespective of what they thought about his presidency. Plus, the stories that accompany these warriors are vivid, compassionate, and inspiring. We learn about their individual struggles, injuries, and recoveries. We also read about their families and friends at home, and their continuing quest and struggles to once again lead normal lives.

These portraits serve as “a tribute to men and women who volunteered, many in the years after 9/11, to defend our country.” In many ways, this book can be viewed as Bush’s gift to the brave men and women in uniform who have fought, and continue to fight, for our freedom, liberty and democracy.

“The greatest honor of the Presidency,” wrote Bush, “was looking them in the eye and saluting them as their Commander in Chief. And I intend to salute and support them for the rest of my life.”

Bravo, Mr. President. Bravo.