Chas Fagan was approached by C-SPAN in late 1998 with a proposition: Paint a series of portraits of each American president.
The cable television channel wanted Fagan to create uniform paintings for segments that would highlight the lives of the presidents. He needed to complete the 42 images in 90 days.
“I couldn’t say ‘no,’ ” Fagan said. “I did a bunch of them at the same time so I could fly from one detail to the next.”
Despite having only about a day and half with each portrait, Fagan thought the project was too important to ignore. The artist, who is known for his work with American political figures in media including sculpture and oil painting, identified with C-SPAN’s goal for the project.
“I really enjoyed working with them and loved their mission for education in American history,” he said.
After the TV series, C-SPAN created an exhibit to tour the country. In American Presidents: Life Portraits, 22 panels highlight the oil portraits Fagan completed. There are also historical artifacts that bring the presidents to life.
The exhibit came to Syracuse in time for the President’s Day holiday, in line with C-SPAN’s goal to further the public’s knowledge about the 43 chief executives. The exhibit will be at Destiny USA until May 4, and the original television series is available in C-SPAN’s archives. For information, visit americanpresidents.org.
The display has been on the road for more than a decade, in a sense becoming a bit of history itself. It is meant to be interactive, with many artifacts compiled by the White House Historical Association. Ed Aymar, marketing supervisor at C-SPAN, said that audio recordings of presidential speeches date to 1900, and that newspaper clippings are from as early as the 1880s. The Nov. 9, 1892, edition of The Atlanta Journal reads, “For Grover Cleveland and Tariff Reform” across the top, predicting victory for the 24th president in his second term of office.
Cleveland, who lived most of his childhood in Fayetteville, started his political career by taking a clerking job in Buffalo. He was later elected sheriff of Erie County, the mayor of Buffalo and the governor of New York before securing the 1884 Democratic presidential nomination. Cleveland’s panel in the exhibit includes facts about his presidency, photos of him and his wife, Frances, and the newspaper reproduction. Aymar thinks additions to the portraits add a personal touch to each figure. “Hopefully it gives people a sense of the president outside of history books,” he said.
Photos of moments outside the Oval Office fill the panels. One shows President John F. Kennedy with his wife, Jacqueline, and two eldest children in the South lawn, Caroline riding a pony. Newspaper headlines denote political victories and defeats, while audio clips allow history buffs and novices alike to hear presidents speak about topics such as the space race and the impact of Martin Luther King Jr.
Destiny USA executive David Aitken was excited to work with C-SPAN to bring the exhibit to Syracuse. He hopes visitors to the exhibit will have the chance to learn more about the leaders of the country. “It’s who we are,” he said. “It’s about fellow citizens who have risen to the rank of serving as presidents.”
Fagan, who had a chance to see the exhibit in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., believes the exhibit allows people to get closer to the portraits and artifacts than the television show itself could do and is glad people still have the chance to interact with his work and the display. The artist added presidents George W. Bush and Obama to the series before their inaugurations to complete the set. He was curious to see how the paintings have held up on the road over time. Fagan’s interest in the series continues even though it has been years since he has seen his collection in person.
“They’re like traveling extended family at this point,” he said.