In 2008 I posted a painting of Republican presidents playing poker on this website. The next day I followed up with a painting of Democratic presidents playing poker. I thought the paintings were funny. Who, for instance, would ever play cards with Richard Nixon and not worry about him cheating? And why did Harry Truman look like he was dressed for a Jimmy Buffett concert? And how many “I’m calling for a new deal?” jokes would FDR make before Andrew Jackson smacked him with his cane?
Well, those two posts, which I put about five minutes of effort into, sent a good amount of traffic to my website. The posts benefitted from a web publishing tactic called search engine optimization, which for you non-Web-publishers is the way you frame your article in terms of headlines, text used in the article, image names, tags, etc., so that when people look for a certain subject matter on Google, they find your article. People who were looking for paintings of presidents playing cards were being sent to my site.
So many people were coming to my site that I decided to include a link to the artist’s website. That’s how I came to know Andy Thomas. Thomas is an artist in Carthage, Mo., and is the creator of the presidents playing card paintings. He specializes in Western paintings, and sometimes populates them with figures from American history, including Mark Twain, Elvis Presley and Will Rogers, among many others. In January Thomas sent me this wonderful e-mail:
I am the artist who painted the Presidents playing poker. I am to give a talk on my work and was gleaning the internet for humorous remarks about the paintings when I came across your website. I laughed out loud at your comments but I’m not bold enough to use them in my talk. Thanks for including our web site. Ok, so the paintings are not Mona Lisa, but they sure bring some fun into people’s lives. Judging from Leonardo’s dour self-portrait, maybe he should have painted more fun stuff.
I had always thought the paintings were incredibly thoughtful, interesting, well-done and slightly humorous, though unintentionally so. I asked Thomas if I could interview him for my website. He said yes.
The timing was fortunate. The day I interviewed Thomas, one of his paintings appeared on The Drudge Report. It was in the background of a photo of Rep. Darrell Issa of California, on a wall in the congressman’s office. A recent New Yorker article also pointed out the paintings in the congressman’s office. Issa owns both the Democrats and Republicans playing poker. “My committee’s job is to trust no Administration,” he told The New Yorker.
Thomas and I spoke on the phone. Before becoming a painter full-time in 1991, he was the head of advertising for a Fortune 500 company, Leggett & Platt. He did well and said the work was fun, but “after 17 crises in a row you get weary of it.” He gave himself a 50-50 shot as a painter and credits his wife Dina’s good business sense for making the transition work. “We realized we could make a living,” he said. “The question was, ‘Could we make a good living at it?’ We weren’t worried about failing or going bankrupt or anything. We were just worried about going years and years and years barely eking out a living. We did pretty well. Couple of off years, but that’s the art business.”
Thomas recently spoke at the University of Virginia about his paintings and making a living as a painter. He says he is not a member of any political party or organization, and seems to retain a fierce independent streak, which is, of course, a very Missouri trait. He has published a book of his work, The Artful Journey: The Artwork of Andy Thomas.
His influences are Bob Tommey, Howard Pyle, Richard Schmid, Frederick Remington, Norman Rockwell and Charles Dana Gibson. His paintings usually tell stories. His style is realism and he paints in oil, primarily.
Thomas has never seen his own website, which his wife manages. He is afraid he would be critical and hurt her feelings, so he trusts her with his image and livelihood. (Nothing to worry about, Andy – it’s a good website.) Thomas and I spoke for 30 minutes. He has a slow, down-home Missouri drawl, delivered in a deliberate cadence that rings wise. He was affable and courteous. These are the highlights of our conversation.
Joe Donatelli: A few years ago, on my website, I posted your paintings of Democrat and Republican presidents playing poker. What inspired those two paintings?
Andy Thomas: I have been painting full-time since 1991. I had done a couple of similar things like that. I had done a painting of a poker scene and I had used my son-in-law, my daughter, a sculptor friend in there and myself. I’m signed up with a print company. It wasn’t really my idea. The president of the print company called Dina and he described it. Dina, she comes peeling around the corner and she said Larry wants me to do this painting and I said, ‘Oh, that sounds fun.’
JD: You have a reverence for America and figures from American history, don’t you?
AT: I do. My kids are out of the house, so I don’t have to worry about them anymore, so now I sit around and worry about America.
JD: Where does your reverence for American history, which seems to be a theme in your paintings, come from?
AT: I don’t know. There’s kind of a nativism that comes out in all of us in some form or another. I don’t belong to any group. I’m not a registered anything. I grew up in a part of the country that is reverent towards America anyway.
JD: How popular are these president paintings?
AT: They really took off. We had a really odd request. When they remade that horror movie two years ago, the set decorator wanted to hang it on the wall. I don’t watch those movies. “Halloween 2,” I think it was.
JD: Any politicians interested in the paintings?
AT: We had some contact with the Carter Library. The other day there was an interview with (Rep.) Darrell Issa from California. It was in The New Yorker magazine. They’re touring his office and he had both of them hanging on his wall. When I painted them I had hoped that people would buy both of them. The country is a lot more partisan than I thought. I was kind of warmed by that, that he put both of them up in his office.
JD: Do a lot of people buy both?
AT: Not as often as I would like. (Laughs) I had a guy in town who wanted to get both of them. Our part of the country is still steaming after Monica (Lewinsky) and he said ‘I just can’t put Bill Clinton on my wall.’
JD: What are your favorite details in the presidents playing poker paintings?
AT: Little things like Harry Truman – I didn’t know this until I started research – liked to wear Hawaiian shirts. I tell everybody, I don’t know what everybody is drinking or smoking, but Harry has a bourbon, because he’ll tell you flat-out, I like my bourbon at 5 o’clock. I don’t know what their drinking habits were and it’s not readily available so I tell everyone it’s iced tea, but Harry’s definitely got bourbon there.
The other interesting thing – I just came across my original sketch for the Republicans. I had Nixon and Teddy Roosevelt next to each other. Teddy was a different kind of a guy, but he was friendly and outgoing. My original sketch had him giving a hearty laugh and saying to Nixon, ‘Isn’t that funny, buddy?’ The original Nixon I had kind of turned away, sheltering his cards, in a paranoid pose, as if he thought Teddy was trying to read his cards. I had thought that was funny. I called the guy at the print company and I said, ‘I’m going to make everyone look good. I don’t want to make fun of anybody.’ Like with Nixon, that was almost a clinical paranoia that he had. It was kind of sad. It dogged him all his life. I don’t want to reinforce clichés or any comic things. I tried to make everybody look good.
JD: You could have had some fun at some of their expense.
AT: Sure. But they have family. And when I was painting it, you kind of realize the events lead the president more often than the president leading the events. They’re a product of us and they’re a product of the problems that come to them. They’re my presidents and I wanted to paint them nice.
JD: Why did you choose to put the presidents at a convention?
AT: That’s the ultimate for a person who belongs to a political party – the convention. I thought it was cool to put it at the convention. The aura of these past Republican or Democrat presidents are with us all the time. That’s my one attempt at being esoteric.
JD: When did you paint these?
AT: Spring of 2008.
JD: On the back of Andrew Jackson’s chair, I initially thought that was a pistol. A reader pointed out that it is more likely a cane. Can you clarify?
AT: I saw that exchange with your reader. It is a cane.
JD: Your painting is known for its story-telling qualities. What challenges does that bring as a painter?
AT: I have found it boring to do a painting that has no story to it. That’s the difference between me and a lot of other artists. They enjoy the texture and the color and the composition. I like to do really representative paintings. It’s a way of keeping me interested. I’m up there painting 10 or 11 hours a day, sometimes. Storytelling gives a purpose to the painting. If I’m doing a Western, and it has some storytelling, with every figure in that painting, I have a challenge.
JD: Your wife is your business partner. How have you made it work?
AT: We’ve made it work. We’ve structured our lives. We have a big house, so some days we don’t see each other that much. I’m in the studio and she’s in the office. If we have something funny to say, we’ll holler it across. We used to make our money going to these little shows. We’d set up outside in a booth. We’d load our van with the tent, all the props and panels, and we’d have like 30 paintings. We’d drive somewhere to where we wanted to vacation. We went a couple times to the Beverly Hills art show. Sometimes you go to those shows and you’re down 500 bucks or 1,000 bucks and not sell anything. The drive home from those, whether it was from California or from Michigan, it was very quiet. I’m thinking ‘she’s not a very good salesperson’ and she’s thinking ‘he’s not a very good artist.’ Sometimes we’d go and have a tremendous show and we’d be driving home with the rock ‘n roll turned up full blast, windows down, smoking cigars, hanging on each other.
JD: You also painted Republicans playing pool.
AT: We work with a print company. It’s a partnership. They really wanted a follow-up. It seemed a lot more difficult to produce. They finally called me up a year ago and said you have to paint the Democrats. Right now on the easel I have the sketch of the Democrats.
JD: I like that you have the painting of the Republican presidents playing poker in the background of the painting of the Republican presidents playing pool.
AT: That’s too much time thinking in the studio.
JD: I think it’s an advertising executive’s mind at work.
AT: It could be. I’m still doing marketing services.
JD: You were self-taught as a painter. Did that help or hinder you?
AT: I think it helped in some ways. If you think about it, we’re all self-taught or we just copy somebody. I do see instances where people train with somebody and the influence of that person is too strong on them. They don’t go out and experiment anymore. I think maybe my progress was a little slow. I didn’t really start training until after I quit work. My process was I would buy a book by Norman Rockwell or somebody. Then I would try paining in their style. I wouldn’t copy their paintings, but I would say, ‘I want to try this subject matter.’ With Norman Rockwell, mine wouldn’t even look like his. No one could tell, but what a great learning tool. I did that with probably 10 or 15 artists. You can’t help but have your own personality in the painting.
JD: Why do you paint?
AT: My contention is that when you say someone is creative, the real test of that is, do you create? I have a compulsion to make things. There’s a line from the movie “Barton Fink.” There’s a guy who’s supposed to be (William) Faulkner, and the earnest young man is talking about the burning soul and all this, and the Faulkner character says, ‘I just like making stuff up.’
To view more of artist Andy Thomas’s paintings, go here.
Joe Donatelli is a journalist and the author of “Full Griswold: Stories from a Honeymoon in Italy.”