Witte CEO Marise McDermott announces the traveling exhibition by President George W. Bush titled Portraits of Courage.
Witte CEO Marise McDermott announces the traveling exhibition by President George W. Bush titled Portraits of Courage. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Witte Museum announced Tuesday that an exhibition of military veterans’ portraits painted by former President George W. Bush will come to Military City, USA, this July.

Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors began its tour at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, where the exhibition was extended “due to the overwhelming response and popularity,” according to the Center’s website.

The exhibition currently is at the Museum of the Southwest in the former president’s hometown of Midland, Texas, through March 25, and will travel to the Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri, before its stop in San Antonio.

The exhibition will open July 21 and run through September 30, Witte Museum President and CEO Marise McDermott said.

McDermott thanked the George W. Bush Presidential Center and lead sponsor the Zachry Group for making the exhibition possible, and for its “leadership and commitment to San Antonio.”

A.J. Rodriguez, vice president of external affairs for Zachry, was on hand for the announcement.

“This is an honor for us,” he said, adding that Zachry employs many veterans. San Antonio is the ideal location for the exhibition, he said, and “bringing this to the Witte, and this investment that we’ve made, is really for all the residents of San Antonio to enjoy.”

Zachry Group Vice President of External Affairs A.J. Rodriguez.
Zachry Group Vice President of External Affairs A.J. Rodriguez Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Col. Miguel Howe of the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative also spoke at the announcement.

“As Military City USA, San Antonio is the perfect place to display these portraits of patriotic American heroes,” Nirenberg said, and the exhibition “will be a game-changer for this museum and this city.”

Howe said there is “no more fitting place for this exhibit,” citing the San Antonio Military Medical Center and the Center for the Intrepid, both part of the Brooke Army Medical Center, as “truly sacred ground for those who have served in uniform, and to our families and caregivers.”

Portraits of Courage focuses on large-scale portraits of military veterans, all painted by the former president in recent years. A main feature of the exhibition is a 16-foot long, multi-panel mural that portrays the faces of a diverse array of veterans, numbering in the dozens, over a variegated, military-green background.

President George W. Bush painting.
Former President George W. Bush paints portraits, some of which are currently on display in a museum in Midland, Texas. Credit: Grant Miller / George W. Bush Center

The paintings first appeared in 2017 in book form, with a volume of the same title, and includes veterans’ stories. A New York Times review of the book called Bush “an evocative and surprisingly adept artist.”

The touring exhibition contains 66 portraits, plus the mural, which shows the faces of 30 veterans. From published reports, several portraits are of visibly wounded veterans, including a woman with a prosthetic leg dancing with Bush himself.

One portrait is of San Antonio resident Joshua Michael, who joined the military in 2009 and went to war as an infantryman in Afghanistan. Michael was severely wounded in a firefight in the Logar province near Pakistan, hit first by an 82-millimeter shell, then “mangled” by a mortar that landed five feet from him, Michael told the Rivard Report in a Monday phone interview.

His buddies laid down suppressing fire to allow the medevac helicopter to land, he said. Michael was eventually flown to Fort Sam Houston to begin a year-and-a-half of therapy. In 2014, he applied for and was accepted into the “W100K” mountain bike ride at Bush’s Crawford Ranch. With 50 miles of trails that Bush himself uses regularly, the former president also annually hosts groups of wounded veterans to ride with him.

“[Bush is] in ridiculously good shape,” said Michael, 36, describing the former president as an avid mountain bicyclist.

At the Witte Museum announcement, Michael appeared fit in a blue blazer and slacks.

“It’s easy to see somebody with a cane, or missing an arm, and you see their service and sacrifice,” Michael said. But in someone without those visible wounds, “the war [that] rages within your mind” is much harder to recognize, he explained.

“Overcoming the invisible wounds of war” is part of the mission of the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, as stated on its website.

Michael also stressed the fact that all profits from the Portraits book go to the Military Service Initiative to help veterans like him readjust to civilian life. The president doesn’t want the focus on himself, Michael said, and that Portraits of Courage is really about “a former commander-in-chief’s passion to help veterans and their families to transition [after their military service], which is very difficult,” he said.

The Bush Presidential Center cites 71 percent of Americans as having “little to no understanding of the issues facing our post-9/11 veterans.”

Howe hopes that the Portraits of Courage exhibition and book can help change that. The exhibition conveys “the service, the sacrifice, but then the resilience and the continued leadership of these men and women.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...