MIDLAND, Texas – World leaders respond differently to life after leadership, from Jimmy Carter’s charitable home building and world diplomacy, to George H. W. Bush jumping out of an airplane for his 80th birthday.
In contemplating his own next moves, Bush’s son and 43rd U.S. President George W. turned to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s book Painting as a Pastime, published in 1948 after Churchill led Britain through World War II.
Both leaders left office under intense criticism. Following in Churchill’s footsteps, Bush turned to painting, perhaps learning from his predecessor’s advice that change is necessary to overcome the “worry and mental overstrain by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties upon a very large scale,” as Churchill wrote.
Churchill painted landscapes, and Bush started with introspective self-portraiture and portraits of the world leaders he had known – to much ridicule. But as an inexperienced amateur, Bush sought out a teacher, hiring Dallas painter and longtime Texas painting instructor Gail Norfleet.
Like many students, Bush’s first attempts resembled those of his teacher. Subsequent work showed an expanded palette and scale, following the examples of his next teachers, Jim Woodson and Sedrick Huckaby. Woodson taught art for 39 years at Texas Christian University, and Huckaby is an assistant professor of art and art history at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Now with his ambitious Portraits of Courage: A Commander In Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors series, Bush appears to be coming into his own. The Witte Museum in San Antonio will host the exhibition in July after its three-month stay in Midland, the former president’s hometown.
His thickly-painted impasto style still owes much to Huckaby’s award-winning, muscularly gestural-large scale portraiture, which Bush reportedly saw during a private visit in 2013. The style suits the difficult subject matter Bush has chosen to tackle: wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to which he first committed American troops as president.
Several routes connect San Antonio to Midland, capital of the oil-rich Permian Basin, but all run right through one of the fastest-growing wind energy regions in the nation.
The small town of McCamey, the self-proclaimed Wind Energy Capital of Texas, sits along route 385, where sleek, slow-turning 300-foot-tall windmills stretch across the desert as far as the eye can see. Yet below the mesas, oil derricks still pump away in the Permian lowlands, the region and resource of which has been a significant contributor to Texas’ wealth and cultural history.
This contrast between wind and oil neatly encapsulates current political rifts between clean energy and petroleum, climate change and deregulation, and the role of the presidency, that may have had their origins in Bush’s controversial 2003 decision to invade Iraq.
Bush grew up in a modest home in Midland, with a sandbox and doghouse in the backyard, surrounded by a classic white picket fence. The Museum of the Southwest, host of Portraits of Courage from Jan. 20 through March 25, sits just a few blocks away from that Ohio Street home. Bush’s journey from childhood to post-presidency traverses many battlefields, however, from the figurative trenches of political life to the conflict zones of the Middle East.
What visitors to the Portraits of Courage show might be most surprised by is that it’s an art exhibition, as much as an exercise in honoring veterans. Bush’s vigorous painting style and canny color sense are on display in 67 large-scale portraits of 98 wounded veterans, some painted individually and some grouped together and engaged in sporting activities.
Bush works quickly, having completed the paintings over a one-year period preceding the show’s March 2017 debut at his Presidential Center in Dallas. His impatience as a painter is evident in the gestural decisiveness of each face, and the unfussy, quickly rendered backgrounds behind them.
In Words and Pictures
The Portraits show at the Museum of the Southwest has all the hallmarks of a contemporary art museum exhibition, with a video introduction to the show, an informational app for mobile devices, and a hardcover catalogue.
But the Witte Museum might consider an additional amenity.
“The exhibit should come with a box of Kleenex,” said Bruce Moore of the museum’s visitor services, who stood at the ready to offer his insights to visitors. The stories behind each portrait are so emotional, Moore said, “it just overwhelms you sometimes.”
In the accompanying mobile app, Bush himself narrates the story of each wounded veteran he chose to paint. His familiar voice echoed throughout the exhibition’s three galleries as visitors probed deeper into each painting via their smartphones and iPads provided by the museum.
Learning more about each veteran through words is one way to chart the emotional impact of the project, but the paintings speak on a different level.
Some portraits are haunting, vibrating with intensity of color to match the difficult and complicated thoughts behind the eyes of each wounded veteran.
“President Bush said the trickiest part of painting portraits was capturing veterans eyes,” reads the Frequently Asked Questions sheet given to the museum’s docents, to help communicate key insights for curious visitors.
But in the portrait of Chris Goehner, a U.S. Navy Petty Officer Third Class from 2003-2006, Bush’s painterly strokes capture a sense of interior conflict, loss, and searching. The portrait stands alone in its unusual approach, painted in thin washes as opposed to the thickly-daubed impasto technique of the other portraits in the show.
Midland native Elizabeth Saenz recognized Bush’s learning curve, visible in the show. “It’s amazing,” she said, remarking on the number of paintings Bush completed in a single year, averaging more than one per week. “I can’t believe that he did all this on his own in such a short time.”
Recognizing that Bush first picked up a paintbrush in 2013, Saenz said, “he’s been very busy, and getting better and better.”
She brought her 4-year-old son Eddie to the show, out of curiosity, and respect for her veteran husband’s cousin and close friend, who died 10 years ago in an Army operation in Afghanistan. Saenz appreciates the show “because I don’t think the soldiers get a lot of recognition coming back with wounds,” not only the visible, physical wounds, but the darker emotional wounds many veterans suffer, she said.
In a few paintings, Saenz said, echoing Moore’s Kleenex comment, “You can definitely see the sadness in the eyes, and the darkness in the background. I’m overwhelmed.”
Only a few of the veterans depicted in the show appear in more than one painting. Dual portraits of Christopher Andrew Turner, hung on either side of a group of six smaller portraits, chart the Army major’s path from depression toward healing.
According to Bush’s narration, Turner suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety due to an attack by an Afghan “friendly.” After undergoing therapy, Turner found relief from stress and anxiety, and an increased sense of acceptance and well-being. After learning of Turner’s turnaround, Bush repainted him.
The president’s audio narration says of the second, more brightly-hued painting, “His new portrait … is the same face, the same person, but with a new outlook and a bright future.”
Turner is not alone in his trajectory of healing and positive momentum among those veterans painted by Bush. Lt. Col. Justin Constantine, U.S. Marine Corps 1997-2013, was shot through the back of the neck and mouth by a sniper, Moore said, and went on to become an inspirational speaker. As did Daniel Casara, who served as a U.S. Army sergeant from 1994-2008. Casara’s legs were crushed when an anti-tank mine flipped his armored personnel carrier.
“I had to relearn how to walk,” Bush quoted Casara as telling him in his audio narration of the soldier’s story
. “ The falling, and getting back up, it just became a way of life.”
Casara went on to speak at a Bush wounded warrior event, and became good enough at it that the President nicknamed him “The Preacher.”
Brothers and Sisters in Arms
Last week, a group of veterans made their way through the show, gaining insights from Dwight Alworth, past president of the board of trustees for the Museum of the Southwest. The men now work together for a Midland-based company, and Alworth invited them to experience the former president’s project together. All agreed to offer their insights, but on the condition that each would remain unnamed, in honor of the wounded veterans around them.
“Leave the names to the guys on the walls, they earned them more than I did,” said a former Army medic who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another former medic who spent 20 years in the military from 1995-2015, including time in Basra, Iraq, pointed out that Bush didn’t sign any of the paintings, and wanted to remain unnamed “in that spirit.”
Karmen Hendrix Bryant, interim director of the Museum, confirmed that the choice was deliberate. “He doesn’t sign the paintings, in order to bring the warrior forward,” Hendrix Bryant said.
A third veteran in the group visiting the show served as a mechanic for Marine One, the presidential helicopter group. Having met and worked with Bush, the former Marine said, “talking to him, you could really feel that he cared about his guys.”
“I’m mostly impressed with the fact that he’s doing this as a tribute to soldiers,” the second medic said of the Portraits project. “I understand where he’s going with it, it’s a depiction of their sacrifice,” he said.
Though at first daunted by visiting the show, not knowing what to expect, his former medic colleague said that as emotionally difficult as some of the portraits and stories are to absorb, “This is actually easier to see than the carnage you saw before they got to this point,” and that the paintings represent success. “They’ve made a triumph here, they’re alive again,” he said.
“I think [Bush] tried to capture that in their expressions, their eyes, the colors, the textures that he’s using in his paints. To me it makes it more real,” he explained, and said that different shades of colors can mean different things.
“Like this individual there,” he said, pointing to a portrait of U.S. Army Sgt. Jeremy D. Henderson, “you see one side of him in red, and one side in white. Is he still going through some kind of inside battle? A lot of guys do.”
The medic pointed out the importance of seeking help for the less visible wounds of war. For veterans to see that talking to people, he said, “will help bring you out of that mental darkness, back into light. It’s very powerful.”
The Marine pointed out that 22 veterans a day commit suicide, and said he appreciated that the show might help raise awareness about the issue. His Army medic colleagues agreed. “It’s a bond we share, and those veterans that do end up taking their lives because of service connected disabilities, it’s something we all feel.”
Alworth said the project represents Bush’s continuing sense of leadership, even for such a difficult subject as having sent volunteers off to war. “The job’s not done once he sends them.”
“You’ve still got a job to do, to help heal as many of these folks as possible, and he’s using all the ability he’s got to help make that happen,” Alworth said. The medic agreed, “You can’t send people to defend your country and forget about them when they return. This is a way not to forget.”
Portraits of Courage ends with a wall text encouraging awareness and support of wounded veterans. “America can never fully repay our veterans,” it reads, “but we must try.”
Portraits of Courage: A Commander In Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors will open July 21 at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. The book accompanying the exhibition is available at booksellers and the Bush Institute website. Profits from the book will be donated to the Military Service Initiative of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.