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Reframing Images of the First Ladies

When artist Laura Elkins toured the White House in 2000, she was surprised to see that the first ladies’ portraits depicted not women at an important stage in their life, but masterpieces frozen in an undetermined time. They appeared, she thought, “more as icons than as flesh-and-blood humans.—

Elkins, who was working on self-portraits at the time, returned from the White House tour with the image of the first ladies still in her mind and decided to combine the two.

Elkins took these women with no determinable age and added a touch of reality by mixing the realness of middle age with her unique facial features. These semi-self-portraits — titled the White House Collection — are now on display as “The First Ladies & Me— at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

Looking at the peculiarity of the women in the portraits, curator Marion M. Callis wrote in describing the exhibit that “no superficial caricature of self or First Lady— exists in them, “but rather a sophisticated amalgam.— “What peculiar process led to its creation?— she asked.

“I was really intrigued by the White House art collection, especially the portraits of the first ladies,— Elkins said in an interview. “[Since] I was doing self-portraits at the time, it seemed like it might be a good device … give it a good twist. And it was evocative for Washington.—

Some of these portraits are slightly provocative as well. Elkins said she realized that to find the true feminine characteristics of the ladies in the portraits, she had to undress them. While they are done tastefully, the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue contemplated how to present the handful of portraits that presented nude “interpretations— of former first ladies such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson.

“It’s a multipurpose space, so we have to be respectful,— said Annie Lumerman, head of community development and exhibits at the synagogue. The Sixth & I Historic Synagogue is a community building that holds artistic and political events and activities, but it also serves as a religious meeting place for the Jewish community. Lumerman said they considered hanging the pictures or tucking them away behind a curtain, but they felt the best solution was placing pictures of the portraits in binders at the door. Then viewers could see them without interrupting religious activities, such as Torah study for young adults.

Undressing the women was one of Elkins’ ways to show the women’s true age, but she also included parts of her own facial features so that viewers could relate to the portraits. Facing middle age, Elkins said she watched herself age within the images of the first ladies. Elkins particularly focused on mid-century modern first ladies, such as Johnson, Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She chose these women because they were recent enough to be in people’s memories, but also out of the current political world.

However, during the 2008 primaries, she started to focus on contemporary figures such as Hillary Rodham Clinton. She has several paintings of herself portrayed as Clinton in various ways, all of which were based on photographs she found rather than on the official White House portrait. This was not to promote Clinton in her run for the presidency, but because of Elkin’s awe of her. “As a middle-aged woman, I was glad she didn’t give up when they told her to give up,— said Elkins, who added that she is still happy with the outcome and is “enamored with Michelle Obama.—

While Clinton caught Elkins’ attention politically and socially, she also added some personal aspects to some of the paintings as well. Elkins calls “Self as Hillary with Black Eye, 2008— “one of the more personal ones.— Soon after Elkins underwent eye surgery, she painted the portrait, coming to grips with the surgery and also feeling the need to capture the physical mark as a study of herself.

The first ladies are not the only political aspect of Elkins’ White House Collection. She has politically themed portraits, such as “Mamie 9/11, 2001,— a portrait of Eisenhower made with oil and ash from Elkins’ fireplace. In 2006 as a response to Hurricane Katrina, Elkins hung a painted canvas on her house that made the house appear as if submerged, titling it “Cajun Christmas,— since loss is felt most during the time of giving. Elkins then painted a portrait of the White House flooding and thought about the consequences if this actually occurred.

“I thought, what if the White House was flooded, what happens to the art? [My paintings are] as if the paintings of the first ladies are submerged.— “Lady Bird With Cottonmouth, 2006— and “Self as Mamie Submerged, 2006— are examples of this. They are hung a little lopsided to show what they would look like if submerged, but Elkins noted that the portrait with Mamie is not as obvious; people keep straightening it.

In 2009, Elkins painted herself as Obama. As with Clinton, she stated that it was “interesting doing more current people, [since] it’s a different take on them.— Because of their physical differences, Elkins said Obama offered some new challenges. She also noted that Obama is younger than herself, meaning she got to shed a few years and watch herself age backward.

In short, Elkins has found a new way to take on different characteristics, ages and stages in a woman’s life. At the same time, she has shown how one woman can embody them all. As one person who commented in her guest book observed: “You really are every woman!—

Viewing hours for the exhibit are Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but visitors should call 202-408-3100 before their visit. Elkins will present gallery talks 7 p.m. on April 23 and May 1. The exhibit runs through May 4.

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