A thoughtful James K. Polk gazes at book browsers at the Argonne Library. The quote posted next to his portrait seems surprisingly contemporary: “There is more selfishness and less principle among members of Congress than I had any conception of before I became President of the U.S.”
Nearby, Gerald Ford’s calm visage features this quote: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”
The portraits and corresponding quotations are the work of local artist John Thamm, 82. His presidential collection featuring all 44 presidents (45 terms but only 44 presidents because Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms) are on display at Spokane County Library branches, except North Spokane, until Nov. 16.
“When I was 4, my mother had a little book that contained photographs of paintings of every president from Washington to Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” Thamm said. “Instead of a biblical bedtime story, my mom read to me from that book at bedtime.”
Thamm, an accomplished portrait and landscape painter, grew up in Spokane Valley. His father owned Thamm’s Grocery at Argonne and Dishman-Mica Road in the 1930s-50s, and his mother taught school in Millwood.
He received his MFA from the University of Idaho and studied portraiture at the Arts Students League in New York City. A few years ago while moving, he happened upon a box of things from childhood and discovered that long-ago bedtime story book.
“I like projects,” Thamm said. “I thought it would be nice to pick up where that book left off.” Using black-and-white photographs and sepia-toned paintings as studies of presidential faces, he brought the men to life with vibrant oil colors.
“Nobody sat for me, unfortunately,” he said, grinning. Journeying back and forth through time, he painted a Washington here, a Nixon there. His favorite painting and president? Jimmy Carter. “He has such a great smile,” Thamm said.
Compiling the portraits in a book was a given. His first book, “Vets: Fifty Portraits of Veterans and Their Stories,” published in 2010, was the result of an art project when he was given permission to set up an easel in the lobby of the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane to paint veterans’ portraits and record their stories as they waited for appointments.
For “The Presidential Collection,” he scoured the internet searching for quotes to pair with the paintings. “I created a theme with the quotes for readers to discover,” he said. As far as he knows, he’s the first artist to paint every president and exhibit the collection. “It’s always exciting to be the first one to do something,” he said.
Showing the collection in the libraries proved a perfect fit, and Thamm has dedicated this exhibit to his parents. “We been doing a lot of civics programming in the library,” said SCLD librarian Dana Mannino. “We’re excited to get people in touch with their political process and system.”
The only problem? They couldn’t fit all 44 portraits in one location, and choosing which ones to display would have been a political minefield. Spreading the wealth over 10 branches was an easy solution.
“That way everyone can have a little piece of them,” said Mannino. “The only reason they aren’t at north Spokane is because they had a prior commitment to another local artist.”
Thamm painted several sizes and versions of the portraits. This explanation mollified a library user who wanted to know why the Clinton portrait (14 inches) was so tiny.
As for presidential politics, Thamm said, “I’m appreciative of the office itself more than the occupants.” He hopes to inspire people to learn more about their presidents. The exhibit opened Oct. 15, and Mannino said those hopes are being realized.
“The paintings have led to some beautiful conversations,” she said. “One customer said he saw a president he didn’t remember hearing about and asked if we had a book about him.” Thamm grinned. “That’s music to my ears,” he said.
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