Let’s Take A Moment to Talk About George W. Bush, the Artist

I haven’t been writing much on this blog lately because being in the US, many of my thoughts had been consumed by the recent election we had and I was resisting the urge to get into politics with the blog. Anything I would have wanted to write would have boiled down to “VOTE FOR THIS PERSON, NOT THAT PERSON!” And that’s not what this blog is about so I just wrote nothing. But now that the election is over, I’m returning to writing, but in a roundabout way, I still can’t completely get away from politics. But that too feels weird to me because I am about to do something that is completely out of character. So, prepare yourself, because it may never happen again. I am going to defend George W. Bush, while at the same time disagreeing with John Stewart. What-whaaaat? Yes, you read right, for the sake of this one, single, blog post, I will be taking the side of George W Bush, the president whose policies I disagree with in a very overwhelming fashion, rather than John Stewart, the political comedian who I respect and depend on daily for my news and dose of common sense and satirical take on the world we live in. And I am standing in this strange territory because today I am not writing about politics, but I am writing about art. George W Bush’s art, to be exact.a_560x0“But Lee,” you might be saying, “This has nothing to do with Haiti or nonprofits, or those things that you’ve made the Green Mango all about.” Well yes, I know. But I haven’t been in Haiti for several months because my back decided to get sick and instead I’ve been spending a lot of time with American news and so at this moment this is what I want to write about, so just go with it, ok? And during this time of following American news, this past week I’ve seen a lot of George W Bush’s media tour for his new book, which has also led a lot of interviewers to dive into his latest artistic endeavors. The Today show actually took viewers into his studio for an interview and other programs such as the CBS morning show have discussed his artwork as well and what it means to him. This renewed spotlight on Bush’s art has, of course, brought many critics out of the dark corners that they hide in to pounce on the opportunity for a cheap laugh by pointing out how bad his paintings really are. Some however, have taken it a step further to even insinuate that the former president’s new interest in art is actually a shameful pastime to pursue and a complete waste of time. This is where Jon Stewart decided to take his joke, as others have, but Stewart’s hurt the most to me as an artist, because he is a guy that I love so much otherwise. When asked about it he belittled Bush’s hobby by pointing out that Jimmy Carter’s “like 108 and he’s out in Africa pulling guinea worms out of children’s feet,” while George W is looking for bowls of fruit so he can paint another still life. I can forgive Stewart because he’s a comedian, not an artist, and he certainly isn’t the first person to dismiss our profession as useless. However, I wanted to make my voice heard still to say that I am proud of George W Bush for ignoring the critics and painting his little heart out anyway. I am proud that the thing that I have chosen to devote my life to is the same thing that one man has chosen to devote his time to once he was done being the most powerful man in the world.

The truth is, when I saw the interior of his studio on that Today show interview, with the newly primed canvasses lying around on the floor, some with pencil sketches on them waiting for paint to be applied, others in various stages of images emerging, and realized that the man that sat in front of that easel is the same one that once sat in the oval office, I was, for the first time, a George W cheerleader. Lord knows I’ll cheer on anyone willing to pull guinea worms from kids’ feet too, but if George W chooses to sit in his studio and paint what’s on his george-bush-painting-4-DMheart, or just what’s in front of his face, then I say, more power to him! I, as an artist, embrace him and welcome him into our world. Does that mean that his art is incredible? No. He, himself, acknowledges that he’s a novice, but he’s not doing it to be the next big thing in the art world. He’s not doing it to make money; he doesn’t need to. And he’s not doing it for any grand conceptual mission. He’s just doing it to chill out and express himself. And for that I say, Amen! Sure, we could go on for days critiquing his compositions, or his proportions, or his understanding of light and value, blah, blah, blah. Although I really do have to say that I am impressed with some of his uses of color in his more recent pieces. And I can also say that if you look at all of his work you can definitely see improvement from where he started, so that makes me excited to see where he goes in the future with it all.

But all of that is not the point. The point is that the man finds enjoyment in it all. And the point is that we, the American people, put him in a position for 8 years that was extremely stressful. Probably the most stressful of any job in this country. And now that he’s free from the burden of being in charge of these crazy United States, he just wants to relax and paint. And for that, I think he deserves to be encouraged. The truth is that I have spent the last 8 years in a pretty stressful position myself. (That’s right, I brought it all back to Haiti anyway. Someone give me a blogger gold star!) Not as stressful as the President of the United States, but still, pretty heavy. And so I understand the desire, once one steps out of that stress, to just want to paint. It helps, it works. It helps because there’s a lot of power in the act of painting. There’s power in the creation, in the bringing to fruition of your idea. There’s power in having control over that one thing that’s in front of you. But there’s also liberation and there is also peace in the process. And shouldn’t we all wish for each other to be able to find that for ourselves no matter where we might look. Whether we live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or on a farm in Iowa, or a ranch in Texas, or in some shack in the mountains of Haiti.

So, Mr. President,  from my creative soul to yours, congratulations and keep up the good work! Because no matter what:tumblr_inline_neocenIcWe1r8sbjv


An Artist, A Writer, and a Womanizer

On a recent trip to Port-au-Prince squished into one of the 10-passenger vans, carrying 18 passengers, that make the route between the capitol and Jacmel, I became an unintentional audience to the converstion of three young men sitting directly behind me. The three of them had never met before but somehow fell into a very vivid discourse with one another about their personal sexual exploits. From Fondwa to Leogane they took turns sharing detailed stories of the women they’d been with. I felt bad for the innocent woman who got stuck on the rear bench with these guys as they would intermittently consult her for a feminine perspective, “Know what I mean, Honey?”

This went on for an hour and a half as we wove through the mountains and then took the straight highway on into the city. I was on the bus with an American friend of mine who was on her way to a conference with the Clinton Global Initiative and she had been asking lots of questions about the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and international interventions in Haiti. I joked with her that I wanted to ask the guys behind me her questions because they clearly wouldn’t have held back their opinions. “Hey guys, speaking of getting screwed, how do you feel about foreigners trying to help your country?” I thought it’d be the perfect segway. Little did I know that I would soon get some answers without even having to ask them.

IMG_0401As we drove through Gressier, on the far end of the neighborhood before entering Port-au-Prince, the guy in the middle, who had just finished telling about a bootylicious girl that he had enjoyed poolside while her boyfriend was in the house, yelled out, “Mesi, Chofe!” signaling the driver to stop. He popped open the back hatch behind him and hopped out wishing the other two men a good rest of the ride. As we moved on the other two kept talking but it became clear that the one who had just gotten off was the real horndog driving the conversation, because now these two quickly turned the topics from women to work.

“It’s tough to make life work by doing what you feel is important.” The guy behind my right shoulder told the one behind my left. “You make compromises just to make money and then those choices end up making you fall down in the end.” When I heard this young man say that he was an artist, that’s when I really started to listen closely to what they were saying. He started telling the other a story about one such time that he made a compromise and it ended up costing him.

He had gotten a commission from a French woman to make 27 paintings for her. It was the largest commission he had ever received for his work and it was going to pay him well enough to live quite comfortably for some time after. The only thing was that this woman wanted him to do all of the paintings with voodoo imagery, which wasn’t his usual subject matter. But she liked his style so much that she asked him to do the paintings and he couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to make this money. So he agreed to do the series and after months of working was almost finished with all of them. He was even very happy with what he had created and knew that his client would be satisfied.

One day an uncle of his showed up at the house and saw the paintings that he had done and immediately went into a rage that his nephew, someone in his family, would paint such images. He went on screaming about how such things are dangerous, powerful, and sinful. Making such work was putting his whole family and anyone in the house at risk. He then went to the kitchen and found a knife which he brought back into his nephew’s room and started slashing each and every painting he had worked so hard to create, tearing them to shreds so that they’d be beyond repair.

At this point in the story the artist’s cell phone rang with a Lady Gaga “Bad Romance” ringtone interrupting his tale of trauma while he chatted for a moment with the caller.

When he hung up the phone, the other guy listening to his story took the chance to give his point-of-view. “I wouldn’t call myself a writer, but I like to write,” he started, showing that he can empathize with the struggles of the creative process and other’s interpretations of one’s work. “But when I write I never choose to write about spiritual things because it just gets too messy. Because we can never know what’s true. Because everyone’s got a different opinion on those things and we can never accurately express through our art something so beyond understanding.” He explained. He continued to say that he preferred rather to write about things that could be seen and touched and identified and proven. Those things are less risky.

Every couple of minutes Gaga would once again infringe upon my right to eavesdrop and I would curse her name and her catchy dance beats. But the two would pick right back up where they left off.

The painter maintained the importance of spirituality in the creative process but said that he felt it was important to create what you feel in your own spirit to be true and let what you believe to guide the art in a way that enhances your own experience rather than compromise it. He shared another story of a friend of his who was also a painter who had done a painting from a dream that he had had that depicted the all seeing eye over the ocean. The image and the painting itself haunted the artist so much that it eventually literally drove him crazy, making him mad. He never made another painting after that and after a while of it consuming his sanity and ability to live. The artist committed suicide and the man behind me on the bus said that it was because of that one painting.

I was so engrossed in the conversation behind me that I almost missed our own stop at the Karfou Matissant 23 where I had to shout out my own thanks to the driver and hop off of the bus with my American friend. As I pulled my bag out of the vehicle and watched the van drive away through the sludge of the city streets, I regretted not taking the chance to introduce myself to the guys and exchange contact info so that someday I could possibly hear the rest of their story and become part of their conversation. Because what they were discussing fascinates me and infuriates me endlessly, the intersection of religion, art, and the cross cultural relationships that drive them to often collide and explode and sometimes quietly destroy. Unfortunately I did not get that chance, or more appropriately, I did not take it. But their stories certainly struck a nerve and a heartstring within me and I wanted to share them for others who may find a bit of reality within the stories that speaks to them. I may elaborate more on that nerve and heartstring in a future post but for now will let the stories sit there and simmer.

Do you ever think about the stories that surround you on a bus, a subway, a plane, that you will never know? How would your life change if you did know them? How might theirs change if they knew yours?