Congressional Artists Unveil a Creative Side

Posted July 12, 2010 at 3:12pm

While working as a military psychiatrist in California during the Vietnam War, Rep. Jim McDermott became attracted to Zen Buddhism, particularly the art of sumi-e painting.

He would practice when he could, and in the 1980s, the Washington Democrat began to take lessons in the Asiatic art form recognizable for its soft black ink on rice paper and representations of nature.

“For me, it’s a relaxing kind of activity,” McDermott said. “You must be calm when you paint. You have to sit down and center yourself.”

Two of McDermott’s paintings are on display at the Woman’s National Democratic Club (1526 New Hampshire Ave. NW) as part of the exhibit “Art in Congress: Works by Members of Congress and Their Families.”

The exhibit features a surprising level of artistic adeptness from people generally more versed in the art of campaigning.

McDermott’s works, “In the Beginning” and “Mountain Bamboo,” both of which feature delicate bamboo scenes, are quite good, especially considering the fact that after a stroke is painted, it can’t be erased.

“It’s in some ways an unforgiving art form,” McDermott said. “As the Chinese say, ‘You have to be one with the brush.'”

With a busy legislative schedule, McDermott gets to paint maybe once a month these days. But he keeps a studio in his yard, overlooking Washington state’s Olympic Mountains.

Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) also contributed an Asian-themed piece. Her clay sculpture, “Tokyo Dango,” is a rounded cylinder with cherry blossoms sculpted into the side and real cherry tree twigs incorporated.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva contributed two distinctive pen drawings of faces, drawn on his official House stationary, collectively called “Long Day of Leg(islating).”

The Arizona Democrat’s style melds tribal and abstract sensibilities with the spirit of a bored student doodling in class.

“He often doodles in spare moments at hearings and elsewhere, and there are several of his drawings up in our office,” Grijalva spokesman Adam Sarvana said. “He’s definitely got a unique style, and visitors comment on it when they see his stuff.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) contributed a lovely piece called “Autumn Bouquet,” a simple colored-pencil-on-paper drawing of red, orange and purple flowers in an ornate green vase.

A fellow California Democrat, Rep. Mike Thompson, gave a more functional piece: a Drake hunting decoy made of redwood, oil and glass. It looks realistic in proportions and color scheme, and from afar, it might fool human and mallard alike.

There’s a poem by Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) about her Aunt Gert and a photo by Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) from President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Jim Ready, the partner of Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), also contributed an inauguration photo. While Inslee’s shows the two first couples gazing off into the distance, Ready shot the spectacular crowd on the National Mall.

Three photos by Erin Kelly, the daughter of Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.), are also on display, including “Artist in His Studio,” a portrait of a young man with an intense glare.

Rosa Handelman, the daughter of Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio), has artwork on display, too. Her acrylic on canvas, called “We Must Be Vigilant for Our Children,” is a very post-9/11 apocalyptic painting. A young boy stands with overalls and a gas mask among toys, cutouts from magazines and text such as “prepared and ready to deter terrorist attacks.”

Jamie Cooper, the son of Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), on the other hand, painted a much more uplifting work: “Day at the Races.” This large, colorful oil on canvas depicts an intent cap-clad crowd sitting in the stands on a summer’s day with a familiarity reminiscent of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”

The exhibit is free and open to the public though July 22.