DALLAS, TX — President George W. Bush has found his second calling—as an artist—and he credits another former world leader for helping him discover his new passion.
“Two years ago, I was sitting up here wondering how to live life to the fullest, and I read Winston Churchill’s essay ‘Painting as a Pastime.’ ” Bush says in a video that opens a new show of his paintings. “I never lifted a brush before, I never mixed a paint, so I gave it a whirl.”
Bush’s first art exhibition, titled "The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy," opens tomorrow at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas and features 30 oil-on-gesso-board portraits of foreign leaders painted by the president over the span of a year. The show’s opening coincides with the start of Dallas Arts Week that will bring much of the art community to the Lone Star State over the next nine days, suggesting that Bush just might want the art world to take a serious look at his work. But don’t assume that the exhibit is just about his next act.
“What we hope to convey here is not just the president as artist, but what it takes to be a personal diplomat and develop relationships on behalf of the United States as president,” says Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
When Bush decided to pick up the paintbrush two years ago, he turned to artist Gail Norfleet to instruct him, asking her to unleash the Rembrandt inside of him. But credit for his latest work goes to Norfleet’s mentor, former SMU art professor Roger Winter, who told Bush that since the president had such a knack for capturing the expressions of animals, he should try painting the faces of the world leaders he had come across. Bush did so, using photographs and his memory to try to “convey a feeling I have about them, because I got to know them well during the presidency,” he says. “What people will be able to come away with is how do I feel about somebody I painted.”
The show is mounted on stately blue walls that have been erected specifically for the occasion at the institution, which opened a year ago. In addition to Bush’s paintings, which he signed on the back with the number “43,” the show features photographs of the former president meeting with world leaders, as well as the gifts, many of which have never been displayed in public, that they gave him. These include the Christmas candle carousel from German chancellor Angela Merkel, a Wedgwood jasperware bowl given to him by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the 2007 G8 conference, and two traditional wooden Liberian masks that were a gift from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “The artifacts are given as an element of diplomacy—the objects and the gifts between these world leaders—and represent a sign of respect,” Amy Polley, the exhibit’s curator, says. “They also show the best, most acclaimed product from that country or that culture. They’re really significant of what that leader felt about him and what that country represents in the world.”
The exhibit opens with a self-portrait of Bush alongside a painting of his father, George H.W. Bush, who he says passed on a knack for forming friendships with his foreign counterparts. “He was amazing about befriending people where there may not be common interests, and I emulated that,” Bush says.
The first leader showcased in the exhibition—which is organized in chronological order based on when the President first encountered the person—is a dignified Tony Blair, who Bush painted in a red tie. “I painted a portrait of Tony with a lot of affection,” Bush explains. “I wanted people to be able to say he’s a man of conviction. I like him a lot.” Next to Blair is a smiling depiction of Bush’s good friend, the Dalai Lama. “He captured our hearts because he’s a very sweet man and I painted him as sweetly as I could,” Bush says. The first female president of Africa, Liberia’s Johnson Sirleaf is also featured. “She’s got a strong determination to succeed,” he explains. “So I painted her as a strong woman leader, and she is.” Other leaders in the show are the late Czech president Václav Havel, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who Bush took to Graceland when he visited the United States because of his love for Elvis.
Of all the leaders on display in the exhibition, Merkel is the only one who is confirmed to have seen her portrait by Bush.
“I think what George is teaching everybody is that it’s never too late to start something new,” Laura Bush says in the opening video.
It’s clear that Bush is passionate about his latest role. “You can teach an old dog new tricks,” he says. “I expect I’ll be painting until I drop.” We can’t wait to see what—or who—he paints next.
"The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,” runs at the George W. Bush Presidential Center through May 3.