As Barack Obama placed his right hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible to take his oath of office as the 44th President of the United States, the artist Rob Pruitt was in his Brooklyn studio, entering into a contract of sorts with himself. On that day, both began an undertaking that would last eight years.
On a bitterly cold January day, Rob painted a two-foot-by-two-foot portrait of President Obama following his inauguration. It would be the first in his series of 2,922 paintings—one for every day of the Obama presidency.
“When Barack Obama came into our lives—into my life—there was resonance for me there,” Rob said, to a crowd gathered for a panel about his exhibit, The Obama Paintings Opens in a new tab, at the Stony Island Arts Bank Opens in a new tab in April. “It was the first time I think that I really connected with a politician.”
It was also the outset of a new sense of civic duty in Rob—a feeling he didn’t want to fade.
“So, I, along with my community in lower Manhattan and my community of artists, signed up to do what I could during the first campaign…and then he won,” Rob said. “I didn’t want it to feel just like the Super Bowl…like, ‘Oh, it happened, my team won.’ You know? Back to work Monday morning and that’s the end of the story.”
So Rob poured the energy and inspiration he felt during the campaign into his art. And in the weeks following the 2008 election, as President-elect Obama interviewed and nominated his cabinet in preparation for Inauguration Day, Rob deliberated over paint swatches, tested different shades of red, white, and blue, and ordered lots and lots of blank canvas panels to lay the groundwork for his project.
When January 20, 2009, finally arrived, Rob was ready to start the project, even if he wasn’t completely convinced he would finish it.
Yet as the days—and eventually years—wore on, Rob found himself in a routine. He started each morning with a Google image search of the daily news. Seeing an image of the President that he liked, he would sometimes redraw it by hand and other times reimagine it in Photoshop. He would then pull out a panel (he painted all the red and blue backgrounds in advance) and lay down white brushstrokes. As soon as the paint dried, he put the panel back in its box—never allowing himself to see the full collection together until the final painting was completed on January 20, 2017.
The paintings range from historical moments—the President delivering his first State of the Union—to sentimental moments—the President walking Bo. “I especially like all the personal moments with Michelle, where they just really seemed deeply committed to one another,” Rob said. “I’m just a sucker for those.”
Over time, the project became an exercise in mindfulness, setting the tone for Rob’s days.
“I was reminded as I was making the painting of [President Obama’s] philosophy and his world and what he stands for,” he said. “That’s the part that became you know, meditation. It helped me with the rest of the day.”
Louise Bernard, the Director of the Obama Presidential Center Museum, also attended the panel for The Obama Paintings, along with the artist Theaster Gates, and emphasized the role art would play in the Obama Presidential Center.
“We’re thinking about the importance of artists to the Obama administration,” she said. “The way the President and Mrs. Obama invited artists into the White House. The way in which the Obama White House was the people’s house.”
From public art to performance art, from sculpture to painting to photography, visitors to the Obama Presidential Center will be able to engage with several mediums throughout the campus. These works will inform and enhance the exhibits that tell the story of the campaign and presidency.
“We’re building a physical place,” Louise said. “But we’re also telling a story which is itself very recent history, yet to be fully digested by historians. We also have to tell the story of the Obama administration—not only to elect the nation’s first African American president, but to understand that particular moment in time in this broader, long presidential history.”
Because of the efforts of artists like Rob Pruitt and the future collections of the Obama Presidential Center Museum, those eight years will live on to inspire future generations.