Maybe the presidential primaries should include a fine arts competition.
George W. Bush was revealed as a portrait artist in 2013, even holding an exhibit the following year, titled “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy.” His subjects span from Barney (the White House dog) to Vladimir Putin (the Russian leader), not to mention self-portraits of Bush in the shower and bathtub. Past presidents such as Eisenhower and Grant were also known for their artwork.
Now Jimmy Carter’s new book, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety,” to be published July 7, features selections of the 39th president’s paintings and poetry. Carter is not new to the art world — one of his paintings, “Live Oak at Sunrise,” sold for $250,000 at a 2012 Carter Center fundraiser — and the portfolio in his latest book brings together scenes from throughout Carter’s life: portraits of his parents and his wife, Rosalynn, his childhood home, critical moments in his presidency and his post-presidential life, as well as a self-portrait of the artist at work in his studio. Carter completed all the paintings in the book over the past dozen years, while the poems were previously published in his 1994 collection “Always a Reckoning.”
Below are some of the most noteworthy and personal paintings and verses in “A Full Life”:
Carter dedicates the book to his spouse — “To Rosalynn, who has kept my life full of love” — and the publication date coincides with their 69th wedding anniversary. He recounts the story of how they met shortly before his final year at the Naval Academy, on a night his girlfriend was away at a family reunion, and how the next morning he told his mother that he was going to marry Rosalynn. The book also features a portrait Carter painted in 2012 of a young Rosalynn in 2012 (“Rosalynn was remarkably beautiful, almost painfully shy, obviously intelligent, and yet unrestrained in our discussions on the rumble seat of the Ford Coupe.”) and poem he wrote for her, simply titled “Rosalynn.”
She’d smile, and birds would feel that they no longer
had to sing, or it may be I failed
to hear their song.
Within a crowd, I’d hope her glance might be
for me, but knew that she was shy, and wished
to be alone. I’d pay to sit behind her, blind to what
was on the screen, and watch the image flicker
on her hair.
I’d glow when her diminished voice would clear
my muddled thoughts, like lightning flashing in a gloomy sky.
The nothing in my soul with her aloof
was changed to foolish fullness when she came
to be with me. With shyness gone and hair caressed with gray,
her smile still makes the birds forget to sing
and me to hear their song.
“I loved and admired him, and one of my preeminent goals in life was to earn his approbation,” Carter writes of his childhood relationship with his father, James Earl Carter. “I learned to expect his criticisms, always constructive, but his accolades were rare.” Carter explains these feelings in a poem, titled “I Wanted to Share My Father’s World:”
This is a pain I mostly hide,
but ties of blood, or seed, endure,
and even now I feel inside,
the hunger for his outstretched hand,
a man’s embrace to take me in,
the need for just a word of praise.
I despised the discipline
he used to shape what I should be,
not owning up that he might feel
his own pain when he punished me.
I didn’t show my need to him
since his response to an appeal
would not have meant as much to me,
or been as real.
For those rare times when we did cross
the bridge between us, the pure joy
survives. I never put aside
the past resentments of the boy
until, with my own sons, I shared
his final hours, and came to see
what he’d become, or always was —
the father who will never cease to be
alive in me.
Carter includes this caption with the portrait of his mother in “A Full Life”: “My mother, Lillian Gordy, left her job as a postal clerk in Richland, [Ga.,] and moved eighteen miles to Plains (population about five hundred) in 1920 to become a registered nurse. She married Earl when she finished her training, in 1923. I was born in October 1924. This painting shows her at age seventy, as a Peace Corps volunteer in India.”
In the book, he describes her work as a private nurse. “Mama worked almost exclusively among our black neighbors in Archery [a small community close to Plains, Ga.],” Carter writes. “The prescribed payment was six dollars for twenty-hour duty, so her normal routine was to come home at ten o’clock at night, take a shower and wash her uniforms, leave us children a note outlining our duties for the next day, and go back on duty at two in the morning. We children would see her only during the intervals when she was changing from one patient to another. Her pay was spasmodic during those Great Depression days, usually in the form of chickens, eggs, pigs, or perhaps work around our house and yard by members of the family. It was a time of hardship and sharing, and she never let ability to pay be a factor in whom she served.”
His childhood home of Archery, Ga.
Carter describes this painting of his home growing up: “My boyhood home in Archery was a Sears, Roebuck house that had been built six years before our family occupied it in 1928. There were about two hundred people who lived in the unincorporated community of Archery.”
The Camp David Accords
One of Carter’s greatest foreign policy achievements — the 1978 Camp David Accords, a framework peace deal between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin — is the subject of another of his paintings, this one completed in 2003. In the book, Carter explains how he broke an impasse with a personal gesture to Begin, who was angry with Carter and would not budge on two points the Israeli leader considered essential. The talks seemed to have failed. “My secretary came to me with a request from Begin that I sign photographs of the three leaders as souvenirs for his eight grandchildren,” Carter recalls. “Without telling him, she had called Israel and obtained their names, so I inscribed them, with love, to each child. I went to Begin’s cabin, and he admitted me with a polite but frigid attitude. I gave him the photographs, he turned away to examine them, and then began to read the names aloud, one by one. He had a choked voice, and tears were running down his cheeks. I was also emotional, and he asked me to have a seat. After a few minutes, we agreed to try once more, and after some intense discussions we were successful.”
Self-portrait of the artist at work
“[W]oodworking and artwork have been personal pleasures for me,” Carter writes, “and I expect that an expanding part of my life will be devoted to them as I grow older and have fewer activities away from home.”
The former president does not have particular illusions regarding his artistic abilities. “I realized many years ago that I do not have any special talent as an artist or craftsman, but with a lot of study and practice I have become fairly proficient,” Carter writes in the book. As for his poetry, he gave a memorable assessment of his skills in an interview when his poetry collection was published in the mid-1990s. When his publisher expressed reluctance to publish a book of poetry by the former president, Carter had his rebuttal ready: “I clipped a poem out of the New Yorker. It was indecipherable and had no redeeming qualities. I said, ‘If the New Yorker can print this, you can print my poems.’ ”
Carter’s “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety” will be published by Simon & Schuster on July 7.
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