Entertainment, On A High Note

Uniquely Nashville Arts: Bob Gray’s “Painting the Presidents”

If you appreciate an interesting perspective on the political landscape, Nashville’s Bob Gray has created attention-grabbing art that captures Presidents of the United States with interesting color and composition.

Gray’s series, “Painting the Presidents,” has been exhibited with regularity in private and public shows throughout Middle Tennessee. He recently stepped away from the canvas to tell us more about the project.

Gray's paintings of early presidents, including Tennessee's own Andrew Jackson. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB GRAY

Gray’s paintings of early presidents, including Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB GRAY

S&E: How long have you been “painting the presidents”? How did you become interested in this series?

Bob Gray: I’ve been painting the president series on and off for about four years now. I have always enjoyed American history and the images of our president and American icons: the great athletes, our monuments, and such legendary celebrities as Johnny Cash and John Wayne.

I had been thinking about painting the president series for about 10 years before I started putting paint to canvas. The biggest question in my mind to overcome was how do I deconstruct the images of the most famous people in our American political history and portray them in a very abstract but recognizable way? At first I thought I’d paint their faces as tribal masks or with masks in mind. Over time that idea turned into more of a geographical landscape approach. I was flying over our country and noticed the landscape as it was segmented in a very artistic way. This was the inspiration behind the faces you see on the presidents: their contribution to the land and now the land’s contribution to them.

How many presidents and first ladies have you painted? Who was the first president you painted? The most recent? 

I have painted 25 to date. I started with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and some of our first, but then started getting commission work for such presidents as Ronald Reagan and JFK. Richard Nixon is my most recent.

Talk a little about the style in which you present the presidents.

Stylistically, I seem to be dancing between folk art and pop modern art.

I guess you could call this style “FolkPopModern.” The style reflects my approach to all my presidential subjects.

Most people have seen the more realistic presidential portraits that hang in the White House or in museums. My goal is to capture their personalities and create a new way to see our commanders-in-chief—using the concept of our American landscapes to help paint the presidents.

Have any former presidents or first ladies (or their relatives) seen or acquired your paintings?

No. But I did sell an Obama to someone who works on his staff at the White House. I also sold my first few presidential paintings to a local family connected to a presidential candidate.

Gray painting a colorful portrait of John F. Kennedy outdoors. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB GRAY

Gray painting a colorful portrait of John F. Kennedy outdoors. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB GRAY

What do people who view your paintings most often say about how you portray the presidents and first ladies?

Most people comment on how colorful my presidents are and enjoy all the geographical shapes that I paint within each piece. They also like that fact that I have included the first ladies in this presidential series. How could I not? Several first ladies were more interesting than some presidents. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, is painted in bright colors and yet very feminine. She had a good heart and this painting really reflects her heart and also captures her style. (The Eleanor is still available, by the way). The other favorite would be Jacqueline Kennedy. I painted her in the cherry garden and this one is probably my wife’s favorite portrayal of a first lady.

What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned in your process of painting the presidents and presenting them to the public?

At my shows some people want to take selfies with the most famous of our presidents. More people want a selfie with our most hated presidents. Nixon does well. I’m also finding out with these paintings people also like to buy canvas prints as well. This avenue is definitely new for me.

Where are your works exhibited? 

I do private art parties and sell direct out of my studio most of the time, though I will do a few city galleries and political venues throughout the year.

Follow Bob Gray’s “Painting the Presidents” series, and see other iconic figures he has painted, on his Facebook page.