A presidential portrait

Go See George W. Bush's Paintings at the Julia Ideson Building

The former president's Portraits of Courage traveling exhibit profiles and honors post-9/11 veterans.

By Catherine Wendlandt February 27, 2020

Some of former President George W. Bush's portraits of posts-9/11 veterans. 

EVERYONE GETS BORED from time to time, even former presidents.

Back in 2012, President George W. Bush was at a loss of what to do with himself post-presidency. A friend suggested he read Winston Churchill’s essay Painting as a Pastime. He was pretty agnostic about art before, Bush said in several interviews, but after reading about the British prime minister’s retirement hobby, he decided to give it a go too.

“I basically said, ‘If this guy can paint, I can paint,’” Bush told Jimmy Kimmel in a March 2017 interview.

So he hired an instructor and sent someone out to the paint store. He began by painting a cube, then worked himself up to family pets (in response to his mother saying he couldn’t paint) and, eventually, to people. At first he tried his hand at world leaders, and then it was the veterans he’s gotten to know through the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative.

“I’ve gotten to know a bunch of warriors since the presidency, and I ride mountain bikes with them or play golf with them,” Bush told Ellen DeGeneres in 2017. “And I decided to paint 98 portraits because I wanted to tell their stories."

You can see some of those portraits here in Houston through April 25 at Houston Public Library’s Julia Ideson Building as part of his "Portraits of Courage" series, which highlights veterans' experiences when they come home from war and benefits the George W. Bush Presidential Center's ongoing efforts to support veterans. The portrait series was unveiled in 2017 as an accompanying special exhibit to Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors, a book featuring 66 paintings and a four-panel mural of the veterans the former president has painted, along with write-ups of their individual stories.

The exhibit has been on the road since 2018, traveling across the United States—even making a stint in Ottawa, Canada's capital—before landing here in Houston. 

Christina Grubitz, assistant curator for Houston Public Libraries, says they were honored and proud when the Bush Center reached out to the library and asked if they would host the exhibit. “Of course, we said yes,” she says.

Coordinated with Bush's book, the exhibit, which opened last Friday, includes 59 portraits and a four-panel mural of post-9/11 veterans. Many of the paintings are quite large, and are all “respectfully done,” Grubitz says. “His style is very colorful and vibrant and uses a very thick oil paint.”

The president used Impasto, a style that layers paint thickly onto the canvas so that you can see the brush strokes, she adds. Notable examples of this style in include Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and Rembrandt's "Self Portrait."

There will be a copy of the book on hand at the exhibit for people to sift through the veterans’ stories. All proceeds from the book go to the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, which helps veterans transition from military to civilian life. People can also download the Portraits of Courage Exhibit app, which allows users to read more about, and even watch video interviews with, the featured veterans. They can also meet some of the veterans at the exhibit's opening reception on Feb 27.

Grubitz says she hopes people take away a greater appreciation for both the former president’s talents and the nation’s veterans.

“These are painted with a lot of passion,” Bush told DeGeneres. “I can't tell you how much I admire these men and women in this book.”

Thru April 25. Free and open to the public. Julia Ideson Building. 550 McKinney St. 832-393-1313. More info at houstonlibrary.org.

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