Jersey tomato. Cuban cigar. Kentucky bourbon. Philadelphia lawyer. Minnesota nice. New Orleans jazz. Hollywood actor.
Bucks County artist.
Sometimes people or products are associated with geographical reference as a connotation of excellence. And in the latter category, no one alive today has reached the acclaim of Nelson Shanks, whose commissioned portraits have included Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Princess Diana, Lady Margaret Thatcher, and Blessed Pope John Paul II (who will be canonized on April 27).
Shanks' work has been exhibited worldwide, while, closer to home, he and his wife (and fellow artist), Leona, have left their imprint on Studio Incamminati, a Philadelphia-based location where artists can "study painting and acquire other skills necessary for successful artistic careers."
Who better, therefore, to ask about the work of the artist known as W, former President George W. Bush, who after being inspired by Winston Churchill's essay "Painting as a Pastime," has turned to the canvas in his post-presidency?
Shanks told me last week that Bush has both talent and imagination.
"I'd give him an A for effort," Shanks said. "He certainly could use some training because his things, at this point, are what I would call kind of thin and quite cartoonish, and certainly lacking sophistication in many senses. But, on the other hand, they are interesting."
He adds, "I would say, remarkably, they have a certain similarity to David Hockney. . . . Hockney has very little more ability to produce realism in a classic way than Mr. Bush. So I'd say that the ex-president is doing beautifully."
Bush began painting just two years ago and has quickly progressed from painting pets to landscapes and now portraits, more than two dozen of which are on display in his presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Shanks told me that portraits, the area for which he is best known, are the most challenging for a painter.
"It's very interesting that a painter can paint a hundred still lifes, ten thousand landscapes, and various other things, and 10 portraits and he'd be known as a portrait painter," Shanks told me. "So calling me a portrait painter is both flattering and demeaning. . . . I'm very sensitive to being called a portrait painter, because there are so many bad ones that it kind of has a bad connotation."
Which is why Shanks simply refers to himself as a "painter," adding, "But, of course, people then ask, Do you do interior or exterior?"
This local "painter" once had the unique experience of painting two of the world's best-known women at the same time in his London studio: Thatcher and Diana. Their recognition that he was painting both at once sparked a rivalry of sorts.
"One day, Margaret Thatcher brought in a beautiful silver-framed portrait, a photograph, actually, of herself, signed with 'Great respect to Nelson and Leona,' and I was very moved by it. It's a beautiful photograph, one of a kind. The next day Diana came in and saw that. Well, the following day, Diana comes in with a royal framed photograph of herself, signed, 'With much love from your dear friend, blah, blah.' So there was a certain competition there. It was pretty funny."
In the case of Diana, Shanks was painting and getting to know her during a turbulent period, when she was besieged by the British press.
"I had that opportunity to be her defender and her champion and we became very, very fast friends and remained so until she died, and so that was a very incredible situation," he said. "But at the same time, I was painting Margaret Thatcher for the second time and we hit it off, too. So we were talking about all kinds of things, went out a lot, spent time with her and her husband, and just became great friends."
The portrait process lends itself to a closeness between artist and subject.
"There's something about a truth and shedding of pretense, and of all the paraphernalia that comes down to one-on-one, and it comes down to honesty, and that's the profoundly wonderful thing about people. From Justice [Antonin] Scalia to Diana to Margaret Thatcher and to people one never heard of, and getting to know people on that basis is pretty profound."
In 2002, Shanks unveiled his painting of John Paul II at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Having been commissioned by the Patrons of the Vatican Museums, he twice visited the pontiff ("I was in total awe, struck by the holiness of the man") but relied on photographs of John Paul from the early 1990s for his portrait.
Which made me wonder whether the painter/subject relationship resembles that of a penitent and preacher?
"Well, normally I don't get the on-the-couch thing at all," Shanks said, "but yes, there's honesty and we learn a lot about each other and our lives and things of that sort on a very honest and truthful level, and it's profound. I don't try to get psychiatric with them."
So what advice does he offer to the artist known as W should the former president arrive at Studio Incamminati?
"He needs to go to the basics, because if you don't have the feet squarely on the ground you can't walk or run," Shanks told me. "He would be profoundly struck by what these students can do, and he would learn to do it exactly the same way. The ability to handle these materials and do things with color and light and drawing that allow any kind of mental expansion eventually that are possible. . . . If you follow the procedures the right way, you can be an extraordinary creative artist and add a great deal to the picture."