On a nice, fall October day, I walked from the Foggy Bottom metro over to the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and finally saw President George W Bush’s Portraits of Courage exhibit in person.  As I walked into the make-shift studio in the REACH, I was taken aback by the detail, the awe of seeing them in person, and the experience I got by going on the opening night of the exhibit. 

After his presidency, President Bush 43 found a new passion: painting, something he came to after reading a Winston Churchill essay on the topic.  He was mocked for it by many, but wow has he used his paintbrush in a big way. Portraits of Courage was a huge part of that. Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors was published in 2017 as a book. It featured the artwork that Bush created by interacting with and painting veterans from America’s wars. I read the book and was in awe of how dedicated Bush seemed to this cause (the art, I’ve always known his dedication to veterans post-presidency) but walking into Studio K and seeing them on the wall, seeing the colors in real life, staring into the layers of paint, it was something I can’t explain. I’m a natural crier when it comes to patriotic things, but I was more stunned than anything. Some of these veterans have disabilities they sustained in combat: lost limbs, burns, glass eyes, scars. Some of those are depicted in the paintings, but there are just as many paintings of veterans smiling, talking to their loved ones, doing their life regardless of their injuries–visible or invisible. The way Bush portrayed these depictions was super interesting. In fact, it was even more detailed than I expected from someone who has spent a life in politics, not the painting studio. The way Bush depicted facial burns was fascinating and engaged the audience without trying to be grotesque. Similarly, the detail on the prosthetics was impressive.  That to me was important as I stood there, staring up at paintings of men golfing with one prosthetic leg and at smiling veterans with burns on their face. Regardless of injuries they sustained, these veterans fought for us. They are warriors. They are people. 

As I moved from one painting to another, enjoying the artistic detail, commenting on decisions with my guest, something hit me. The studio was well-attended, but not packed–various people milling about. As we’d turned the first corner, we had stepped around a man in a wheelchair with a service dog — a beautiful, thick-haired German Shepherd, in case you’re wondering. It was only as I glanced over my shoulder towards one set of paintings to decide which way to go that I realized that many of the portraits had their subjects standing next to them. Yes, I’m serious. It was a chilly Monday night in Washington, D.C., and I was standing, in jeans nonetheless, at real life portraits of courage. I froze, I’m not going to lie. My guest and I had a small debate about how to proceed. I didn’t want to be that person that fawned over someone for their service or even shied away from talking about something that I didn’t have words for, but I wanted to make the most of this opportunity. Luckily, a woman who I believe was one of the organizers, or perhaps a wife of one of the veterans, came over to us and asked us if we’d like to meet some of the guys. With this phrasing, how could I say no? 

She introduced us to two men who had been painted, we shook hands, and we began to talk. Amazingly though, we didn’t talk about their service, or what led to them being memorialized in these portraits. Instead they asked us about us, what we did for work, what brought us to DC, and we asked them about their own lives now–where they lived, if they had thoughts about DC as a city, a recent movie we had seen. The conversation felt easy and natural and yet I was still in awe of these men for their service and also their experience–meeting George W Bush is a dream of mine. 

Seeing the portraits in person was a big experience for me, but I never imagined getting to meet some of the men in person, see them interacting with others, watching them interact with their service dogs. It was a surreal experience. It made the importance of the portraits even more clear to me. President Bush is doing really important work in his engagement with veterans. I hope that everyone will come to appreciate that and support these endeavors. Pick up the book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, wherever books are sold. 

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Aryssa D
FFL Cabinet Member