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The Former First Lady (and her Dallas Artist Pal)

by Gail Sachson 11 Jun 2013 10:37 AM

Guest blogger Gail Sachson tells the story of how a lifelong friendship led to a piece of art at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.



Laura Bush and artist Pamela Nelson with Nelson’s Painting To Everything Turn at Cafe 43.

Guest blogger Gail Sachson owns Ask Me about Art, an art education service offering lectures, tours and program planning.

If  there is an art to friendship, Dallas artist Pamela Nelson and former First Lady Laura Bush have painted the perfect picture. It all began with a shared lipstick (probably pink) in the girls bathroom of San Jacinto Jr. High School in Midland.

“I hadn’t worn lipstick yet,” Nelson says. “Laura was a grade higher and showing me the way to sophistication. I was the new girl in school, and she was the first person who was nice to me. She reached out and is still reaching out.”

Through the decades, Bush has kept Nelson and other old friends near and dear with numerous invitations to the governor’s mansion and, later, to the White House. She’s thanked them openly for their “steadfast role in her life” in her autobiography, Spoken from the Heart. One of the reasons Bush and Nelson’s friendship in particular has stayed strong is because of their mutual interest in art. Nelson has encouraged and nurtured the First Lady’s love of design and decoration, while Bush has taught Nelson about antiques.

They visit galleries and museums together and talk endlessly about art. Bush has been an active and ardent supporter of Nelson”s art. When her twins were young, she asked Nelson to give them after-school art lessons. As Texas’ First Lady, she chose Nelson as the first artist to exhibit in the Capitol Gallery, which she created from an underused space. And she commissioned Nelson, along with other Texas artists, to create Christmas cards for the governor’s mansion. She has enthusiastically collected Nelson’s work for her Crawford ranch, her home in Dallas and Camp David. The most recent commission is a present from daughter Jenna – a mosaic birdbath for her parents’ Dallas backyard.

Another recent acquisition is one we can all see. To Everything Turn, a 20′ x 5′ acrylic painting of entwined circles hangs as a welcome to visitors in Cafe 43 at the recently opened George W. Bush Presidential Center. The work seems to exemplify their friendship. “It’s about turning back to where you came from,” Nelson says. To Everything Turn embodies eternity, unity and friendship, and it’s thus perfectly placed at the cafe. Breaking bread together often smoothes over differences and brings people together – even those of differing political persuasions.

Bush, Nelson, Nelson’s husband, Bill, and artist Gail Norfleet recently enjoyed lunch together at the Cafe. (It was Pamela who suggested Norfleet as the President’s painting teacher, and it was Laura who introduced Pamela to Bill on a double date during their college days at SMU.) Today, Bill is struggling with a neurodegenerative disease, which makes socializing a challenge, yet “Laura’s support continues,” Pamela says. “She includes Bill in every invitation.”

When asked how she supports the First Lady, Nelson says, “It sounds like it’s kinda one-sided. I am stumped with my support of her. I guess all I can bring to the table is love.”