Portraits of Courage
George W. Bush's third act includes helping veterans—and becoming an artist
When we last checked in with former President George W. Bush, in 2011, he had just published his second book, was building his presidential library and policy institute on Southern Methodist University's campus in Dallas, and was considering his options. Today he and his Bush Institute are deeply engaged in helping vets transition to civilian life, particularly those who were wounded while he was their commander in chief. In 2012 another passion blossomed: He decided to become a fine arts painter. In late February, Bush released Portraits of Courage, a coffee table book that showcases his paintings and the personal stories of 98 veterans — many of them amputees and most suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) or post-traumatic stress (PTS). All proceeds from the book will be donated to the institute. The paintings in the book will be on display at the Bush library through September 2017. (For details, see BushCenter.org.)
Recently, Bush sat down in Dallas at the George W. Bush Presidential Center with Executive Editor William W. Horne. The former chief executive was by turns gracious and funny, humble and deadly serious, and very eager to talk about painting, veterans — and life after leaving the biggest job in the world.
Thanks for taking time to chat, Mr. President. As you know, AARP is very interested in how Americans can stay productive and engaged in their 50s and beyond. At 70, you remain vigorous and busy. What advice would you give our audience?
Life should be lived to the fullest. The problem with taking it easy is that it sounds attractive at first, until you get into a routine of doing nothing. And you don't expand your mind or help anybody else. Life's final chapters ought to be just as full as its initial chapters. My dad [former president George H. W. Bush] has been a great example of that. When he jumped out of the airplane in 2014 at age 90, he did it not only to prove to himself that he had youthful vigor, but because he wanted to set an example. And so do I. Maybe somebody's life will be enriched when they read this article. Because if George Bush can paint—
And you certainly can. How did you land upon painting as a pastime?
In the post-presidency, I was busy. But I wasn't stretching my knowledge or imagination. And I became a little antsy — that's the word to describe it. So in 2012, a Yale professor recommended a book of Churchill's essays about his passion for painting. I read it and thought, OK. If old Winston could paint, I'm going to try it.
Had you painted before?
No, nothing. I was art agnostic. I wasn't anti-art. I just hadn't paid that much attention to it.
So you wanted to do something besides golfing and biking and serving veterans.
Yes. I was fit, and I was reading a lot, but just had one of these itches, you know? My advice is, when you get an itch like that, try to scratch it, especially if you're an old guy like me.
I have to admit, I was skeptical, Mr. President. I thought, Oh, great, the president is painting.
I'm sure you were!
But then I opened that book, and it's full of very moving stories and striking images.
I bet you expected to see some stick figures.
Well, I wasn't sure.
So did all my friends. Believe me, you're not the only skeptic. I set a pretty low bar at the beginning. [Laughs.]
So how did you get from Churchill's memoir to serious portraiture?
Step one is hire somebody to teach you. I've had three instructors, all painters who brought different skills, and I tried to absorb, to learn everything I could, from each one. I also took an art history course online. Then for a while I painted pets. Then I painted cacti. Then I painted lilies.
Your Monet period.
Yeah, exactly. Well, not really close to Monet.
How often do you paint?
I typically paint two to three hours a day in my studio after I get home. Sometimes the limitation is my legs get tired — I always paint standing up.
What does the first lady think of all of this?
Well, after overcoming her shock—
Why the shock?
She knew I was antsy, but she never thought I'd paint! She's very supportive. She is constantly taking our visitors up to my studio.
Does she interrupt your painting?
Rarely. The only interrupter is Bernadette, the cat. She demands I pet her during the painting process.
What do Laura and your two daughters think of your paintings?
I have painted a few portraits of the grandchildren, none of which were really accepted. Some of my more difficult critics have been the females in my family.
High standards there.
Yeah. But I did do one grandchild painting I want to show you. [Bush begins flipping through photos of paintings on his smartphone — "300 or 400" by his count — displaying some favorites.]
Cactus.… Cactus.… Maine rocks.… That's a scissor-tailed flycatcher.… More Maine rocks.… This cacti picture was our Christmas card this year.… I painted this one of my mother's favorite hats for her birthday.… More Maine rocks.… That's my buddy Ben Crenshaw.… Actually, some of my favorite paintings are of my dad.
It was great to see him at the Super Bowl this year.
Yeah, he's doing well. Oh, here's a grandchild. [He displays a portrait of his son-in-law and one of his granddaughters walking away from the viewer, on the beach.]
Was it acceptable to the family?
Oh yeah, that got great reviews.
What do you like about painting?
You're never sure what the final product is going to look like. So it's an exciting process, discovering how that painting is going to evolve. Every brushstroke is a learning experience. It's never routine.
Now that you have this hobby, do you view the world differently?
Yes, I think about painting all the time. And I view colors differently. So if you look at the sky, you may see it as one color. But I see it as a series of colors. Or I think, Look at the shadow that goes across that grass or concrete.
As you painted these 98 veterans for your new book, what were you thinking?
For a while I was thinking, How can I make that person's portrait better?!
But really, I was thinking about why I was doing this book in the first place. It's to honor veterans I've gotten to know, who are an incredible asset to our country. Think about it: Eighteen-year-old kids volunteered to face danger. And when you get to know these men and women the way I do, you realize they want no pity. They're proud of their accomplishments. They would do it again.
And they need help. So the purpose is not only to honor them — and, frankly, to do something unique that has never been done, which is a commander in chief painting portraits of troops he put into combat — but also to call attention to the invisible wounds of war like PTS and TBIs.
The other reason to do the book is that maybe some vets will read the story of, say, Michael Rodriguez and find something that helps them. Over time, Rod's been [overcoming his wounds], and one of the ways he's doing this is by learning to forge metal. So maybe somebody'll see Rod or somebody else and go, "Wow, I can relate to them, and maybe I'll follow their same path."
Because we've learned that many vets with these wounds think there's shame attached, that "I'd better not talk about this because people might think I'm weak." Or "I'd best keep it inside because someone may not hire me."
A warrior mentality.
Very much so. And the message of this book is, it's courageous to talk about it. And if you need help, seek it. Some people in the book were reluctant to talk but began to as step one of the healing process. We discovered through our bike rides, through our golf tournaments, that when vets talk to vets, it really helps.
Do we do enough for our vets?
I think we try. I think when you compare this with the Vietnam era, we do a heck of a lot more, starting with respect and appreciation for sacrifices. The institute is part of helping determine what works and then getting the message to the vets. Because the truth of the matter is, a vet has to want to help him- or herself.
You left a very big job and started thinking about what you wanted to do, then started doing those things. What advice do you give to veterans who have left what might have been the biggest job in their lives?
The first message is, you've got some skills that are really important. And you can make a significant contribution to a company, a nongovernmental organization, a group of people. Secondly, you've got to learn how to talk about it.
How have the vets reacted to the portraits you painted of them?
Well, I think they're all very pleased and honored that I would paint them. Probably a little surprised. I've probably never gotten an honest reaction. [Laughs.] Because I don't think they want to offend a commander in chief.
You're from a long-lived family; you probably have another 20, 30 years to go, at least. How will you be spending that time?
Well, grandparenthood is great. Defending the values of the Bush Center, I think, is going to be very important. Laura and I will be going to Africa this spring to encourage Namibia and Botswana to continue with the cervical cancer effort that was started here at the Bush Center. That's going to be very important.
But the painting trip has no end. When you look at my early paintings today, you can see I've learned a lot. And when you study the history of painters, it's an evolutionary process. I don't know where it's going to end up.
Thank you for your time, President Bush. It's been a pleasure.
Thank you, buddy. Thanks for coming down.
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