Waiting for a president to walk in the room is … weird. Stoic young men in suits have eyed me, politely enough, and relax in the hallway. A cluster of women chat nearby. Then, everything goes silent. The men in suits snap to the ready and footsteps approach. Through the door walks
a ruddy-cheeked guy in a sharp sport coat who shakes my hand and smiles as if he’s a buddy and not a former president. On the walls are a number of portraits, all of them created by the man standing before me. George W. Bush, once the most powerful politician on Earth, has more recently tried his hand as an artist.
We’re here at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas to talk about his most recent project, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, a 192-page compilation of paintings of veterans and the often brutal stories behind them, as recounted by Bush. In the book, he does not shy away from the physical and psychological scars suffered by these soldiers. There are tales of lost limbs, fractured jaws repaired with leg bones, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse.
Bush sits on a couch outside the exhibit— 60-plus paintings composed of heavy and evocative brush strokes, some of their subjects smiling, some with drifting eyes, or with facial asymmetries as if dented by life. He leans back on the couch almost boyishly, shifts forward,fidgety as we begin the interview, then interrupts to say howdy to the photographer and talk to her about Dallas families they both know. Even so, that initial sense of easy bonhomie has faded a little.
There was a more rudimentary feel to Bush’s paintings when he first picked up a brush in 2012, three years after leaving office. He was 66 at the time, and his early efforts (made public that same year by the hacker “Guccifer”) were less-than-stellar depictions of his pets, his toes sticking out of bath water and his own gaze in a bathroom mirror, providing fodder for waves of online derision.
Bush’s early works also depicted people he’d encountered while in office—Vladimir Putin, say, or the Dalai Lama. When an artist friend suggested he try painting less well-known figures, Bush immediately thought of the injured U.S. war veterans he’d gotten to know at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and at the Bush Institute’s W100K mountain bike rides and Warrior Open golf outings.
So, while Portraits of Courage represents the evolution of his skills, there’s also a sense that he’s taking care of some unfinished business—paying his respects to men and women who sacrificed and suffered during his watch. Indeed, he writes in the book, “I intend to salute and support them for the rest of my life.”
What inspired you to start painting at age 66?
Churchill inspired me as a leader, and as I understand the history, he really took painting seriously when he got booted out of office. My life had abruptly changed. I wasn’t sad, but going from 100 mph to, like, 3 is an interesting adjustment. I thought it was interesting that painting was something he took to. So I decided to try it.
When you were a kid, what were you drawing?
Nothing. I was really not that interested in art until about five years ago. You know, I rarely went to museums, if at all.
Now that you paint—and go to museums—who are you in awe of?
Well, Lucian Freud. The subject matter is a little disturbing, particularly since some of the models were his daughters. But you have to separate the nature of a person from the talent of the person. There’s a guy named Fairfield Porter, who I think is a really interesting artist. David Hockney, he’s really good. Of course [Edward] Hopper. And I like the impressionist painters a lot.
Do you ever do anything abstract—go all Jackson Pollock—just to have fun?
I’ve tried some—no Jackson Pollock stuff, but I did a couple of theme abstracts really early on. The interesting thing for me about painting is that every brush stroke is a learning experience.
You paint the intricacies of the human face. Do you ever get stuck and think, “Oh, my gosh, I’m a terrible painter”?
No, but I get stuck and I think, “Oh, my gosh, this is a terrible painting.” You know, I’m still learning. I’m frankly not so sure how good I am, but that’s not why I paint. I paint because it’s an outlet, it’s a sense of creativity I never really had before.
You must be good at Pictionary now.
Ah, no. I can’t sit still that long.
Your portraits in the book sometimes have outlandish color choices and features are exaggerated. How do you make those decisions?
I have a confession to make. I listened carefully to instructor Sedrick Huckaby saying, “Try pushing the limits of color.” When I first got going, I would call myself a “Polaroid painter,” and I would try real tiny brush strokes just trying to paint exactly what I saw. There wasn’t much interpretation to it. As I gained more confidence, I used the photograph as a go-by, but I’ve learned a painting evolves. And so I just start painting, and I’m not sure what the end is going to look like. With these warriors, a lot of the paintings start off one way, and as I got to thinking about their histories, and what they’re dealing with, the paintings would evolve.
You write that these veterans have “injuries both physical and invisible.”
Yes. We’re looking at Dave Smith [Bush gestures to a painting]. All these vets are people I know—I’ve ridden bikes with them; I’ve played golf with them; I’ve talked to them; I’ve gotten letters from ’em. In Dave’s case, I painted a tower from Berkeley, California, in the background because he went to college, had terrible problems dealing with post-traumatic stress, became suicidal, and then recovered with help and got his degree. So I painted a guy whom you sense is dealing with something, but also beginning to look forward. I continually get letters from Dave. He’s doing well.
You emphasize that veterans need to be able to ask for help.
Through the stories of these vets we’ve identified issues, and one is stigma: I was sitting next to Christopher Turner at an event, and he looked physically healthy, but he started telling me a story about an awful wartime experience, and he just couldn’t get the images out of his mind. There’s a stigma. Turner might say, “Well, I may never get promoted again if people think I’m dealing with this. Or I won’t ever get a job.” Turner now shares his story with the men and women under his command. Now he says, “I feel much more comfortable sharing my story.” He’s the only guy I painted twice. [The first time] the shadows penetrate deep into his head, and [the second painting] is much more hopeful. Hopefully, people will see how Turner has progressed and how I’ve progressed.
One of your portrait subjects, Juan Carlos Hernandez, was an undocumented worker when he served, and now he’s a citizen.
Yes, Juan Carlos was not only willing to wear the uniform, but he also lost his leg. He was sworn in at Bagram air base as a U.S. citizen. There are people who are not citizens of our country, willing to wear the uniform and fight for our security. These are not isolated stories, and often Americans don’t hear them.
When you meet wounded veterans, history has affected their lives, and you, as president, have affected that history. Is there ever any sort of awkwardness there?
No. There might have been early on in my presidency because I wasn’t sure what to expect. First of all, I knew that the decision I made was going to affect people’s lives negatively. I wouldn’t have made the decision I made if I didn’t think it was necessary for the security of the country. Secondly, early on I made a point of going to Walter Reed. And nearly to a person, a wounded vet would look at me and say, “I’d do it again, Mr. President.” I still think putting them into combat was the right decision. I still think, I mean … I regret that some lost their lives and got hurt.
The press has made a lot of your friendship with Michelle Obama.
Will you paint her?
No. I tried to paint Laura [Bush], and it was unsuccessful because I never got it right, and therefore I don’t want to incur the wrath of Michelle Obama.
Early on, you also painted world leaders such as Vladimir Putin.
There’s an anecdote about how he met your dog, Barney, and you eventually met his dog, and he compared the two as if it was a contest.
He said his dog was bigger, stronger and faster than Barney.
But it’s insightful.
Did that play into how you painted him?
A little bit. Putin changed when I was president. Early on, Russia was broke and he wanted help, and I thought he was going to promote a civil society that enabled people to have a big say in their government. When the price of oil went up, Putin began to change. I met with him a lot, so I looked in those eyes a lot. The paintings [of world leaders] are okay. Putin’s is pretty cold—blue eyes. But, you know, I look at them and say, obviously I was a beginning artist. I think I could do a better job if I repainted each face. And I’m not going to.
Given the vitriol of political discourse in America these days, you’ve been very restrained. How do you stay out of the fray and resist comment?
I am commenting. I’m commenting about vets. I’m commenting about immigrants. I’m commenting about the need for the United States to continue with the AIDS program on the continent of Africa. I believe that’s by far the most effective way for a president, post-presidency, to act. Otherwise, it looks like you’re trying to tear down your successors. The job is very hard, and there’s a lot of critics. I don’t think it’s worthy of the office to just be another critic.
You wrote in the book, “I’m driven to learn as much as I possibly can before I’m no longer able to hold a paintbrush.” That’s a pretty unflinching look at your own mortality.
Well, when you’re 71 you’ll see. You begin to realize you’re writing final chapters. The key thing, however, is to write them. So my dad jumps out of an airplane at 90—pretty clear signal that life is to be lived to the max. And painting for me is a way to do that.
Portraits of Courage is on display at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas through Oct. 1. Tickets and books available at bushcenter.org/portraits. Proceeds benefit the Bush Institute and its Military Service Initiative’s work to support post-9/11 veterans and their families.