DALLAS—Even among his friends, George W. Bush always has been known as the man who can’t sit still—a guy so fidgety he could barely make it through the long ceremonies he was required to attend as president.
So it was to some a surprise when an email began making the rounds among Bush’s friends and former staffers more than a year ago announcing that the former president had picked up a new hobby: Bush, the email said, had become a painter.
“When I first heard about it, I literally couldn’t imagine it,” said Karen Hughes, a longtime friend and adviser to the former president. “I immediately emailed him, and was like, ‘Is this true?’”
For the next hour, Hughes recalled, her email was “lighting up” with messages from her former boss, who sent her pictures of the dozens of portraits he’d painted.
“Even then, I literally could not believe it,” she said with a laugh. “George W. Bush, painting. I think it’s a surprising image to anybody who knows him because he’s so high-energy.”
Indeed, the most surprising image of Bush in the postpresidency hasn’t been of the former leader in his rare public appearances, but of his artwork, which first became public when a hacker infiltrated email accounts of some members of the Bush family.
There were portraits of dogs, including of his beloved Scottish terrier, Barney, and several landscapes. But the pieces that attracted the most scrutiny were a pair of self-portraits the former president painted: one of him peering into a mirror in the shower, the other of his knobby knees and feet in a bathtub filling with water.
Immediately, commentators wondered what the artwork could mean—but at the same time, some critics praised Bush as someone who actually showed promising talent as an artist.
Asked about his new hobby, Bush told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he decided to try painting after he read “Painting as a Pastime” by legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, one of Bush’s heroes who also created art in his spare time.
Bush said he began working with a tutor and now paints daily, telling ABC that “painting has changed my life in an unbelievably positive way.”
“You know what the interesting lesson is, though? That you can keep learning in life,” Bush said. “I mean, some guy one time said to me, ‘Man, you deserve to rest.’ And I don’t wanna rest. I wanna live life to the — I wanna follow the example of (my father) President 41, and, you know, sprint into the grave.”
But his friends continue to be amused and slightly mystified by the former president’s attraction to art—given that his other hobbies include more manly pursuits like mountain biking.
Don Evans, one of Bush’s best friends who also served as his commerce secretary, said the former president sometimes spends as much as five hours a day alone in a studio he has in his Dallas home.
“He does immerse himself into it. He goes into his studio at 1 p.m. and may not come out there until 6 p.m.,” Evans said. “It amazes a lot of people because he’s such a proactive guy and such an avid exerciser. How can he stay in one spot for so many hours and paint?”
Painting, Evans said, “has brought him a lot of joy”—especially when he’s painting for others.
One of Bush’s specialties, as evident from the images that have leaked out, is painting dogs—and recently, he has badgered his friends, including Evans, to take pictures of their pets so that he can paint them.
“But he’s been pretty specific about what he wants,” Evans said. “The dogs have to be lit in a certain way or posed this way or that way.” He laughed and added, “He’s really serious about what he wants. But he’s also really good at what he’s doing.”
Indeed, as word has circulated about Bush’s talent, friends and staffers have lined up to have the former president paint their dogs. That includes Hughes, who says she was initially reluctant to ask her old boss for a painting of her dog. But someone told Bush she wanted a painting, and he recently emailed her asking her to take 10 pictures of her dog and forward them to him.
“I think he’s really enjoying the creativity of it,” Hughes said.
In his interview with ABC, Bush said painting had been “eye-opening” for him, saying he now looks at colors differently. But he also seemed to poke fun at himself. Asked about his self-portrait in the tub, he replied, “It’s a beauty, isn’t it?” But he was also quick to defend the piece, telling Sawyer that “water hitting water” is “not that that easy to paint.”
“It may reflect my precocious nature, me painting myself in a bathtub,” Bush added, playing art critic.
While Bush said he has not seen the positive reviews from critics about his work, he seemed to dismiss them.
“Look, the signature is more valuable than the painting,” he said.