President Bush painting. Photo by Grant Miller.

Since the end of his presidency, George W. Bush has pursued his passion for painting in his Preston Hollow home art studio, formerly his “man cave.”

Gail Norfleet was Bush’s first art instructor. “Gail, there’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body. Your job is to liberate him,” Bush recalled telling her, in the intro to the 2017 book about his hobby. Texas Christian University art professor Jim Woodson became his second teacher followed by Sedrick Huckaby, who is the one who suggested Bush paint people he knew but others didn’t. This inspired Bush to focus on the wounded warriors he had met during the W100K mountain bike rides and Warrior Open golf outings organized by the Bush Institute. He began creating the portraits of 98 veterans in 2015.

“Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors” (Crown Publishers, $35) is a collection of that work along with profiles of the soldiers. The book’s profits will be donated to the George W. Bush Presidential Center and its Military Service Initiative, a non-profit organization that helps post-9/11 veterans and their families transition to civilian life.

A traveling art exhibit, which has the same title as the book, features 66 oil portraits, stories and a four-panel mural. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., hosted the exhibit, on loan from the Ambassador and Mrs. George L. Argyros Collection of Presidential Art at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, Oct. 7-Nov. 15. It can be seen at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, through Jan. 20.

“I wanted to show their determination to recover, lack of self-pity, and desire to continue to serve in new ways as civilians,” Bush said in the introduction, admitting he’s a novice artist. “The greatest honor of the presidency was looking them in the eye and saluting them as their Commander in Chief,” he wrote. “And I intend to salute and support them for the rest of my life.”

Who: Sergeant Leslie Zimmerman, U.S. Army, 2001-2004

military history: Served as a medic in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Post service: Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and depression.

Bush: “Leslie sought counseling and medication, supplementing those treatments with mountain biking, long-distance running and coaching. She brought Laura and me a signed first edition of ‘Dream BIG!,’ the children’s book she recently wrote, to give to our granddaughters. I’ll be pleased if they come to count Leslie as a role model.”

Who: Sergeant Daniel Casara, U.S. Army, 1994-2008

MILITARY HISTORY: In 2005, a mine flipped his M113 armored personnel carrier in Baghdad, crushing his legs.

Post service: Relearned to walk after 24 surgeries. Casara was the first participant to compete in the Bush Institute’s golf tournament and mountain bike ride.

Bush: “In 2014, Danny spoke in front of a large crowd at a dinner we were hosting during the Bush Institute’s Warrior Open. He had the entire audience captivated with his story and its lessons. He was so good, I nicknamed him The Preacher.”

Who: Lance Corporal Timothy John Lang, U.S. Marine Corps, 2005-2010

MILITARY HISTORY: Injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. The bomb killed two of his fellow soldiers and wounded his best friend.

Post service: His right leg was amputated after nearly 50 surgeries. He suffered survivor’s guilt, traumatic brain injury and PTS.

Bush: “Tim enjoys waking up for ‘an ungodly early tee time,’ watching the sun rise over the golf course, and reflecting on how happy he is to be alive. Tim says, ‘We all have battles to conquer in life.’”

Who: Sergeant First Class Michael R. Rodriguez, U.S. Army, 1992-2013

military history: Deployed nine times over 21 years as a Special Forces Green Beret, including stints in Somalia, Haiti, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Bolivia and twice to Afghanistan.

Post service: Severe PTS and traumatic brain injury resulted in his medical retirement from the Army. He began wearing dark sunglasses and later, blue-green prosthetic lenses to correct his double vision and light sensitivity.

Bush: “Because the lenses are different colors, Rod made for a very interesting subject to paint. Rod finds peace in blacksmithing. Rod is very talented. Prince Harry and I are proud owners of beautiful daggers that Rod forged for us.” He also served on the Institute’s Military Service Initiative advisory board.


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