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An artful encounter with a former president

By Crissy Neville 

Vilas Tonape has taught art to thousands of people around the world for more than two decades. In March, former President George W. Bush joined that long list. 

Tonape, chair of the art department at Methodist University, spent a day with Bush at his home in Texas discussing and demonstrating portraiture techniques. The experience, Tonape said, was an honor and a thrill. 

Tonape is an award-winning artist, drawing and painting in both figurative and non-representational modes. His work has been exhibited in the United States, Canada and his native country of India. 

He’s also a passionate and highly regarded art teacher, with fine arts degrees from the University of Mumbai and Texas Christian University. Tonape has taught at schools and arts centers around the United States and India. In 2015, he joined Methodist, where he teaches basic and advanced drawing and painting courses at all student levels. 

Through the years, Tonape has maintained connections with former teachers whom he deeply respects and regards as his “gurus” because of their influence in his life. Last fall, one of those gurus – TCU professor emeritus Jim Woodson – called Tonape. 

Woodson said he knew someone in Dallas who enjoyed painting portraits and wanted to learn more about the process. Since Woodson specializes in landscapes, he showed the student YouTube videos of Tonape demonstrating portrait techniques. Impressed, the student wondered if an in-person lesson might be arranged. The student? Former U.S. president George W. Bush, who began painting after leaving office in 2009 and last year published a book of his paintings of military veterans, titled “Portraits of Courage.” 

“When and where?” Tonape said. 

That took some figuring. During a phone call in February, Woodson and Tonape were discussing possible dates for the lesson when another voice came on the line – Bush himself, who said he was looking forward to meeting Tonape. “Sir, it would be an honor,” replied an astounded Tonape, who stood up in his office at Methodist at the sound of Bush’s voice. At the end of the 15- to 20-minute conversation, Tonape realized he was still standing respectfully. 

“It was my instinct to stand,” he said. “You have to understand. I came to America in 1994 with a student visa from India and $275 in my pocket. It is not just every day I get a call from the (former) president of the United States.” 

On March 14, with Secret Service clearance, Tonape flew to Dallas where Bush and his wife live. Bush received much acclaim for “Portraits of Courage” but knew he had more to learn. Though he met each of the subjects of that book, he had painted their portraits from photographs. He now wanted to use live models and hoped Tonape could provide valuable insights. 

Upon meeting the Bushes, Tonape greeted the couple with the traditional namaste bow of his homeland. 

“I was freaking out on the inside but trying to remain calm,” he recalled. 

He brought two sets of paints and brushes, one of the day’s work and one to leave behind for Bush’s use. Bush said he wanted to pay for the items, but Tonape demurred politely, saying they were gifts. 

To Tonape’s delight, Laura Bush served as the live model for the lesson. “She was so kind to volunteer,” he said. “She was so gracious and graceful; the perfect specimen of a lady.”  

Tonape worked with the former president that morning, drawing Laura Bush’s likeness on canvas while discussing portraiture techniques, such as the application of color and tone on the human face. 

At lunch, the lesson stopped for a while. Two days before the trip, Tonape had been sent an elaborate list of 30-plus menu choices for his lunch. Overwhelmed, Tonape ordered something familiar – a chicken curry sandwich – which he ate while talking with the Bushes and Woodson, who joined them for lunch. 

“We talked about many things, including the president’s many trips to India,” Tonape said. “He mentioned the former prime minister Manmohan Singh like they were buddies and revealed he had once painted a picture of him from one of his own photos.” 

Tonape said he enjoyed talking and bantering with the president throughout the day. 

“He was supremely funny,” Tonape said. “I found him to be highly intelligent and very funny. He picked on me a lot and the ambience between us was fun. He was also very astute and knowledgeable as a student of art, noticing the smallest things I would do while painting. At one point, when his wife sneezed and he was gone a few seconds to get her a Kleenex, I made a very subtle color change to the lips in the portrait. Upon his return, he immediately commented that he liked what I had done to the lips. His level of attentiveness reminded me of that of a postgraduate student.” 

After a few more hours of work in the afternoon, the lesson and the portrait were complete. When done, an artist always cleans his brushes thoroughly and Tonape recalled that Bush wanted to help. 

“The president began cleaning my brushes in the sink and I felt he should not do that for me, but then he said, ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ and continued with his task.” 

Before departing, Tonape left the Bush family with the portrait of Mrs. Bush, a signed set of course handbooks that he authored for Methodist University and the set of paints and brushes. 

Tonape took away many special memories and credited the experience to his former teachers. “I feel like every mark I make on a canvas shows a gift I received from a teacher,” he said. “The wisdom and skills we receive from our teachers are gifts. As a teacher myself I am the catalyst in teaching forward the gifts.” 

Emphasizing the value of the teacher in Indian culture and in his own life, he read a Hindu scripture in Sanskrit which translates, “The teacher is the one who has the facility to put you on the right path.” 

Tonape is grateful for the path that took him to Dallas – and to an unforgettable day spent with the 43rd U.S. president.