Making Art Not War: ‘Portraits of Courage’ shows the new job of George W. Bush

Portrait of George W. Bush among cacti. This piece is one of 66 on display at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum and will be featured there until Dec. 31.

Cash Navarro

Portrait of George W. Bush among cacti. This piece is one of 66 on display at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum and will be featured there until Dec. 31.

Cash Navarro, Staff Writer

Some modern Presidents find themselves in a nice beachfront house after their years at the White House, relaxing and chilling. But George W. Bush, he was different. He would not spend his post-presidency kicking up his feet. No. His political retirement was just the catalyst for his true passion in life: art.

Since around 2012 Bush has been taking private lessons in oil painting. His paintings mostly consisted of happy dogs, and house plants, but as time went on his paintings grew in both meaning and scale, including his version of the four horsemen of the apocalypse as well as another painting that appears to depict himself, shirtless, looking into the mirror as an Iraqi ghost child points to him hauntingly. 

His talent was clear, but he was still lacking something. You could see it in the eyes of his portraits, they had a sense of lifelessness. But you would be a fool to misunderestimate him, as it was only a matter of time before his magnum opus: “Portraits of Courage.” 

Walking into the basement of the Truman Presidential Library, I find myself face to face with real, physical, tangible, paintings. I’m not sure why such a simple thing shocked me so, perhaps it was the fact that a part of me still didn’t believe the paintings actually existed. I mean, It’s one thing to see pictures of them on the TV or on my laptop, but in person, just wow.

After entering the exhibit, I made my way to a bench that was placed in front of a small projector. On the screen sat the man himself, pre-recorded from his home in Dallas to introduce me to the artistry I was about to witness. 

He explained that all of the portraits in the collection would depict veterans that had been wounded in either the Afghan War or Iraq War, with the goal of spreading awareness about their mental and physical health struggles from battle. He also noted how all money from this collection and its correlating book would go to the George W. Bush Institute, which has been supporting veterans since its creation in 2013. 

After this short excursion of a video, I stood up and made my way to the main exhibit, and oh, was it awesome. Before me stood a massive portrait of a veteran playing golf, and next to him stood another massive portrait of a veteran playing golf. Turn the corner, and what do I see but another smaller portrait of a veteran playing golf — all displaying moments from a wounded warrior golf tournament Bush helped to host. 

I looked at the different paintings from a plethora of angles. The depth was truly something to admire, some of the works appeared to be a good five to six centimeters in depth, showing the layers of work. The diversity in types of paintings is also clear. Though all the paintings are oil paintings, they have a plethora of shapes and sizes, with some of the works being on floor to ceiling canvases while others are no bigger than the average piece of paper. 

The final set of paintings and what I believe to be the grand jewel of the exhibit is a collection of three wide canvases that feature the likeness of 20ish veterans in full uniform on each. They are placed right next to the exit of the exhibit and are clearly meant to be the image that you are left with as you leave. 

As I left the Truman Library, the feeling of shock and awe still stuck within me. I would never call Bush a great painter, his works are actually quite mediocre all things considered, but the passion is clearly there and that’s got to be worth something. Or at least for me it’s worth something. I would never recommend you go see this collection if you were looking for art, but if like me you just want to go and appreciate the passion project of the former leader of the free world then I could not recommend Portraits of Courage more. 

The collection will be on display at the Truman Library until Dec. 31. Almost all the paintings in the exhibit are also featured in the book of the same name, available from most book sellers for around $30.