The artist known as ‘W': Paintings unveil George W. Bush’s softer side

George W Bush Painting exhibit - Vladimir Putin

DALLAS — On canvas, Vladimir Putin appears stern, Tony Blair looks relaxed and Junichiro Koizumi smiles broadly.

Through paint and brushstroke, former President George W. Bush says he has found not only a rewarding hobby but a unique way to express himself and his impressions of 30 presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders during his time in office.

These never-before-seen portraits, which were done by looking at photographs, will go on public display Saturday at his presidential library in Dallas.

The exhibit is titled “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy.” It will also include photographs and artifacts of his interactions with these leaders.

“I think they’re going to be (like), ‘Wow, George Bush is a painter,”‘ Bush told NBC’s “Today” show in an interview on Friday. “I’m sure when they heard I was painting, (they said), ‘Wow, I look forward to seeing a stick figure he painted of me.'”

One work he is most proud of is that of his father, former President George H.W. Bush.

“I painted a gentle soul,” he said.

The Bush Presidential Center is using these paintings to help broaden the image of Bush and is hoping to show “what it takes to be a personal diplomat,” said Margaret Spellings, president of the center, emphasizing one-on-one relationships with his fellow heads of state were very important to him.

Most of the world leaders portrayed have not seen the art yet.

The rebirth of cool

For newer generations the artwork, and the buzz around them, will show a new side of Bush.

The 43rd President has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, a bump aided partly by his work trying to save the lives of Africans who have AIDS and efforts to help veterans, including helping them to find jobs.

Forty-nine percent viewed him favorably while 46% saw him unfavorably according to a poll last June from Gallup.

When Bush left office in 2009, only 40% of Americans held a favorable opinion of him, a number which sunk to 35% in March of that year before beginning a slow climb out from under water.

He’s also earned nods from such publications as BuzzFeed and Vanity Fair that noted his counterculture hipness in painting outside of the art establishment and taking selfies.

Though the former President has opened a new chapter of his life with painting, there were reminders of the controversies surrounding his presidency. Just this week, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to seek declassification of its report on the secret prisons and interrogation techniques used by his administration on terror suspects after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Bush also has refused to publicly discuss politics.

In a video accompanying the exhibit, he said of the Dalai Lama: “I painted him as sweetly as I could.”

For Blair, the former British Prime Minister and one of the leaders he spent the most time with, Bush said he painted “with a lot of affection” and was trying to convey “a passionate person and a reliable person.”

After reading an essay about Winston Churchill’s art hobby, Bush took up painting two years ago.

“I gave it a whirl,” he said in the video.

He hopes the paintings help convey his feelings and friendships to these leaders. He told NBC this will help “make sure the last chapters of my life are full.”

“I want to get better”

Bush said he still has a lot to learn with this hobby.

“I am not a great artist,” he told his daughter Jenna Bush Hager, who is a “Today” show correspondent, in the NBC interview. “I paint a lot. I want to get better.”

He has his share of critics.

New York Magazine Art critic Jerry Salz said of some of Bush’s previous artwork “no natural gifts—except the desire to do this.”

Bush’s family said he is very disciplined and dedicated to his work and will often spend hours in his new studio with music playing. Family and friends said he is very excited about his work.

“He talks enthusiastically about it,” Spellings said. Bush “utterly loves it.”

Bush uses various photos to see facial expressions, clothing and other attributes that he then uses to craft his paintings.

He started off doing some smaller things like animals. Then an art professor at a local university suggested he try doing world leaders because he was good at capturing details.

He was initially reluctant to share his work publicly.

However, his paintings first came to light after a hacker last year obtained private Bush family emails, which included photos of some of his work.

Some of the other paintings featured dogs. But other paintings were self-portraits of him in the shower and the bathtub while he was looking in a mirror.

“It’s an invasion of one’s privacy. And yeah, I was annoyed,” Bush told NBC. “And nor do I want my paintings to get out. And I found it very interesting the first painting that came out was the one I painted of myself in the bathtub. I did so because I wanted to kind of shock my instructor.”

By Kevin Bohn