Dubya on Canvas
George W. Bush portraitist takes us behind the canvas of new work for presidential center
The official opening for the George W. Bush Presidential Center is Thursday, April 25, where Bush will be joined by the four other living American presidents, including Barack Obama. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair hasn't announced plans to attend the ceremony, but we know he'll at least make an appearance via canvas.
That's because Blair is depicted alongside Bush in his official portrait titled "The Ties That Bind," a 7-by-9-foot oil painting by renowned portraiture artist Mark Balma, which was commissioned by Dallas real estate mogul Harlan Crow. The painting, like the rest of the building, will be unveiled Thursday.
Balma credits former First Lady Laura Bush with the idea behind the painting, which shows Bush and Blair conferring in the Oval Office. The scene is supposed to represent the two leaders coming together in the wake of 9/11 and how they would use the American-British alliance to help the world move forward after those tragic events.
"I’m not a political person at all," says artist Mark Balma. "I’m interested in history and the people that make history."
Balma is well-suited to paint such a meeting. He's previously been called upon to capture Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in a portrait called "A Shared Vision," a painting that now resides in the Crow Holdings building in Dallas.
He also painted President George H.W. Bush alongside four prominent members of his staff in "Resolution," a painting that hangs in the rotunda of the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station.
Balma says that even though Laura Bush came up with the idea for the painting, his input was far from minimal.
"Immediately when somebody suggests something, things start popping in my head, and I had an idea for how this might look," Balma says. "Then I start to do the research to find out more about it, and [I met with] President Bush and a number of different individuals that helped give it an authenticity."
Balma was first approached to do the portrait in 2008 and later had Bush do a series of in-person sittings in the Oval Office. Although he was unable to do the same with Blair, the wealth of pictures and video of the two men together helped Balma conceive the look of the painting.
He did, however, engage both men in the process.
"I asked them what they thought of it, and they were pleased with what I had come up with as the concept," Balma says. "With these portraitures, there’s a real diplomacy that’s involved with trying to bring together a lot of ideas that sometimes you think are impossible to bring together."
Although some may choose to read into how well or how poorly the painting shows Bush and Blair, Balma says politics played no part in what he chose to do.
"I’m not a political person at all," Balma says. "I’m interested in history and the people that make history. If you can tie [portraiture] to an historical event, it becomes a vehicle by which people can access this time and for future generations to look back in time."