Deborah Dismuke was never fully satisfied with her painting.
Displayed in one of the most prominent hallways of the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va.,“Message from Moscow” depicts a critical moment during the Cuban missile crisis.
Dismuke thought the faces of the men she had painted needed work. One Saturday, the longtime CIA officer actually took it off the wall, making hurried improvements for about an hour in the nearby women’s restroom.
Yet the painting’s flaws still nagged at her. So last spring, Dismuke decided to create a brand-new — and more historically accurate — version of “Message,” which she is racing to complete and install before she retires next month.
“The original looked bad, and given that it’s the agency, you want to get your facts straight,” said Dismuke, 63. “As an artist, it’s one of those things. I’m a perfectionist.”
Her perfectionism has put her in rarefied air. She is the only CIA employee, the first woman and the only African American with a painting in the agency’s vaunted Intelligence Art Collection, a gallery of more than 20 pieces just around the corner from the building’s Memorial Wall.
Aside from her Cold War painting, Dismuke also claims a second one honoring the agency officers from the “Argo” operation — including legendary disguise artist Tony Mendez — who rescued six U.S. diplomats from Iran in 1980.
Although publicly available versions of her paintings in calendars or catalogues feature her autograph partially or fully redacted, the originals at Langley (which can be seen only by employees and authorized visitors) feature her full signature.
This is no small achievement at a place like the CIA.
The names of rank-and-file CIA employees rarely adorn the agency’s interior. Typically, only the names of former agency éminence grises grace the hallways — such as past CIA directors, whose portraits line the building. Then, there are those officers killed on the job and whose names, depending on secrecy concerns, are in the Book of Honor in the CIA’s lobby next to its Memorial Wall of engraved stars.
Although Dismuke is not a covert officer, she hardly ever tells people where she works. But in January, after Mendez died, the CIA tweeted out an image of her painting “Argo: Rescue of the Canadian Six” — and her full name.
“I do have to say, I have really surprised some African Americans within the agency,” she said. “They didn’t know that an African American female did the ‘Argo’ painting and ‘Message from Moscow.’ One of them said to me, ‘Oh my gosh, one of our own?’ ”
Dismuke, who paints at her Manassas Park townhouse listening to soundtracks from “Jurassic Park” or the “Dark Knight” Batman trilogy, said she is humbled to have artwork next to those by such established painters and in such a solemn setting.
“My boss told me the other day: ‘Deborah, there are a lot of talented people here, but when you retire, your legacy will still be here. You get to leave something behind,’ ” Dismuke said, sitting at the CIA’s Starbucks. She smiled, sheepishly. “I just never thought of it that way until then.”
She submitted her résumé everywhere: Hallmark. Graphics shops. Advertising agencies. She heard nothing.
It was the early 1980s and Dismuke, a recent graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art, was several months into a backroom computer job at a D.C. bank. A friend from MICA whose mother worked at the CIA got hired by the agency. She urged Dismuke to apply.
“I just knew stuff from TV and thought it was like a James Bond type of thing,” said Dismuke, who grew up in Charlotte.
Dismuke was skeptical about the spy agency needing a classically trained painter. But it turns out the CIA had a need for someone such as her, who could do anything from propaganda to illustrations for internal publications. By 1987, she was hired. Even though she was not undercover, she told only her mother and sister where she worked.
She left the agency in 1993 to become a government contractor but rejoined in 2008, teaching officers how to use education tools such as Blackboard and Moodle.
Over time, word of Dismuke’s artistic talent started circulating in the agency’s upper echelons. She drew a portrait of George J. Methlie II, a deceased officer, that was hung in a training center named after him. Then, in 2009 or 2010, she made a painting that appeared on a holiday card sent out by Leon Panetta, the CIA’s director at the time, to every employee around the world. When Panetta summoned her to his office, he told her, “You’re going to be famous one day,” she said.
Around the same time, Toni Hiley, then the director of the CIA Museum, wanted to select the first agency artist to make a painting for the growing Intelligence Art Collection. She had seen Dismuke’s portrait of Methlie and was impressed.
The collection needed a painting honoring the CIA’s partnership with the British Broadcasting Corp. Monitoring service, which, starting around 1939, pioneered the recording and analysis of foreign radio stations’ broadcasts. The BBCM, a peacetime arm of the BBC news service, helped teach CIA officers its craft and allowed them to be stationed at its headquarters.
To start, Dismuke was given an old black-and-white photo of BBCM employees at their workstation. But the image was not very clear, plus it felt static — just two guys with headsets in front of radio equipment. Could she make a painting that told a story?
She was directed to tell the tale of the moment, when BBCM employees received word, aired on Radio Moscow in October 1962, that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was complying with President John F. Kennedy’s demand for the removal of recently installed missile bases in Cuba.
All sorts of ideas surfaced: She added in a BBC business card at the employees’ desk and a copy of Pravda, the Soviet broadsheet and official organ of the Communist Party, with a front page featuring a photo of rising political figure Mikhail Gorbachev. She also threw in a map of Cuba and a picture of Fidel Castro that sat next to one of the men turning a radio dial.
On Nov. 4, 2011, “Message from Moscow” was unveiled at the CIA, inside its semi-spherical auditorium known as the Bubble.
Dismuke was the painting’s toughest critic. She was worried if experts knowledgeable about the radio equipment passed the piece in the hallway one day, they would say the switches were not intricate or realistic enough. She also thought the men’s faces needed more color and definition. When she removed it from the wall one lonely Saturday, she sat on a cushy chair in the empty women’s restroom, pulled out a paint palette, and began tweaking the 30 1/2- by-38 oil-on-canvas.
But it wasn’t enough. She wanted a complete redo.
One recent day, in her basement, Dismuke was staring at an enhanced and nearly complete new version of “Message from Moscow.” While the old one still hung at the CIA, Dismuke was busy making her new one far more detailed.
The Pravda needed work. She took out one brush to make the newspaper darker because the original at headquarters is too white. Then she added in shadows so that the newspaper’s placement on the officers’ desk looked less flat. Then she went to work on the men’s faces, giving them more color.
By the end of May, she’ll take her new version to the agency so it can be installed. A few weeks after that, she’ll hand in her blue badge and be gone for good.
But she may not be done making CIA paintings. Her dream, she said, is to be selected to paint a portrait of one of the CIA directors.
“I want to do Gina’s,” she said, smiling, referring to CIA Director Gina Haspel. “She’s the first female director. And I’m the first female artist and the first staff officer with a painting on the wall. It would be awesome.”