Leslie Zimmerman had just finished riding mountain bikes with George W. Bush for his 70th birthday when the former U.S. president pulled out his iPad. He had something he wanted to show the group of veterans he was celebrating with: portraits he had privately painted of them.
“I didn’t think it looked like me,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “At first.”
But she said she grew to appreciate it when she realized what the source of the painting was: a video Mr. Bush had watched of her explaining to an interviewer the depression and anxiety she went through after serving as a medic in the Iraq war.
“It was when I actually saw it in person, in the full size, that it hit me. He had captured the sadness that I had,” she said.
Ms. Zimmerman’s portrait is one of 51 paintings by the former U.S. president that are on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in a travelling exhibition called Portraits of Courage. The display opens this weekend.
Mr. Bush served as the U.S. commander-in-chief from 2001 to 2009, overseeing the country’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and leading the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2012, he took up painting as a hobby. He began to portray veterans in 2015, and his portraits were soon turned into a book and an exhibition. This is the first time they are being displayed outside of the United States.
Mark O’Neill, president of the Canadian War Museum and the Museum of History, said it’s not Mr. Bush’s skill as a painter that got the canvases on the museum’s walls.
"We don't have this here for its aesthetic quality,” Mr. O’Neill said. “We basically use [the exhibit] to try to interpret what we think are interesting, universal common themes about military history and suffering loss."
Mr. O’Neill said the idea for the exhibition came when he ran into U.S. ambassador Kelly Craft at an after-work function. Ms. Craft, who will soon be leaving Canada after a year and a half if she’s approved by the U.S. Senate for a new post at the United Nations, funded the exhibit’s travel to Canada through her personal fortune. Ms. Craft’s husband, Joe Craft, is the president of one of the United States’ largest coal producers and the couple are prominent Republican Party donors.
Mr. O’Neill compared the exhibit to others the War Museum has put on at the behest of diplomats in the nation’s capital. In 2008, the museum exhibited photographs of British prime minister Tony Blair deciding whether his country’s military should join the Iraq war, and in 2012, the museum presented photos from the Mexican revolution.
Daniel Casara, another portrait subject who was wounded by an anti-tank mine while serving in the Iraq war, said he hoped museum visitors could look past the politics of the man who made the paintings and think instead about those wounded physically and mentally in the conflicts.
“I hope they come here and look past the commander-in-chief piece and they look at the warriors and they read our stories and they see that we are just like them,” he said.
Mr. Casara said, like Ms. Zimmerman, he’s gotten to know Mr. Bush through golf games and charity bike rides and come to admire the Texan’s postpresidential pastimes.
“It’s difficult because it’s three days of gruelling cycling,” he said of the Bush Institute’s W100K bike rides. “And you’re trying to keep up with the president. You can’t pass the president. Even though we wanted to, we can’t pass him. He won’t let you because he’s really good. He’s a very good cyclist."
Editor’s note: Mark O'Neill is the president of the Canadian War Museum and the Museum of History. Due to an editing error, an earlier version referred to him by an incorrect title.
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