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The artist who created the White House Christmas card

Landscape painter Tim Lawson re-created the view from the Truman balcony for a holiday card that the Bushes sent to friends and dignitaries around the world.

By Todd WilkinsonCorrespondent / December 24, 2008

Brush with history: Tim Lawson, a landscape artist, contemplates a painting in his studio in Maine, where he worked on what he has called the 'biggest assignment' of my life.

Courtesy of Dorie Lawson/Soldier Creek Associates

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Rockport, Maine; and Bozeman, Mont.

Tim Allen Lawson stood alone on the second-floor terrace, waiting for dusk to bathe the nation’s capital city in soft light. Down from Maine for the day, he hurriedly sketched the landscape before him with a 3B graphite pencil, distilling its essence so he could use it as research for an oil painting he would do later in his studio.

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Knowing his opportunity was fleeting, he immersed himself in the scene, avoided distraction, and didn’t hear the man enter the room behind him. “Who the heck is on my balcony?” a voice bellowed.

Panicked, Lawson turned. When he realized who was admonishing him, he began to stutter: “My name is Tim Lawson, Mr. President. I met with your wife earlier today, and she told me I could be up here. I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you.”

President Bush was, in fact, just being mischievous, feigning alarm over an intruder in his private quarters. He knew full well the landscape painter had been commissioned by the first lady to create an image for the 2008 White House Christmas card.

Putting Lawson at ease, Mr. Bush expressed his pleasure that the artist was portraying a view that he counts among his favorites over the past eight years. Lawson’s painting, “Evening View From the Truman Balcony,” appears on more than two million holiday cards now reaching dignitaries, friends of the Bushes, and citizens around the world.

The painting has added to the visibility of a rising young landscape artist who grew up in a small town in Wyoming and who, to this day, likes to stand out in rainstorms to glean a truer sense of the movement of clouds. Bespectacled and soft-spoken, Lawson spends much of his time now at his home in Maine, but he still exudes a sense of Western unpretentiousness. He was awed by his recent assignment.

“The opportunity to paint this card has been a surreal experience,” he says. “Part of me still doesn’t believe it happened. It’s sort of like a dream.”

•••

Historians say Calvin Coolidge was the first occupant of the Oval Office to send out official White House Christmas cards. Coolidge didn’t have much of a card list at the time.
But the practice broadened dramatically in 1953 when President Dwight Eisenhower and first lady Mamie enlisted the Hallmark Company to make the custom official. Since then, many of the cards have featured classic American paintings and works by prominent living artists.

“People are always thrilled whenever they receive a card from the White House,” says Ann Simpson, the wife of former US Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming. “To have your painting selected for this card at the request of the first lady is a great honor.”

Holiday cards (because of political correctness they are no longer called “Christmas” cards) dispatched from the first family have become collector’s items, and while the intention always is to strike a cheerful mood, some have evoked somber moments. In November 1963, historians say, John and Jacqueline Kennedy had hand-signed three dozen of their Christmas cards and intended to finish the rest after they returned from a little side trip to Dallas.

The significance of this season, given the challenges in the world, is not lost on Lawson, who harbors a keen sense of history himself. He grew up in small Sheridan, Wyo., located along the wagon-rutted routes of the Western frontier. The Bozeman Trail, which provided 19th-century settlers with an illegal shortcut across native American lands, can still be seen outside town. Just to the north is Little Bighorn, and beyond that the wilderness playground of Lewis & Clark.

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