Inside a green house on a suburban street in Casper, artist Zak Pullen worked for a year and a half on a portrait that was the first of its kind.
The 10-by-3-foot painting featured 43 men standing on two rows of wooden scaffolding in front of the White House, all with different expressions on their faces, with a varying degree of redness on their noses and cold breath coming from their mouths.
“This is the only portrait of the U.S. presidents in one place,” said Mick McMurry, the 69-year-old Casper entrepreneur who purchased the painting from Pullen. “This is one of those pieces where you feel like you know each one of them, and you keep going back looking at it.”
“It’s incredible. And it’s in Casper, Wyoming, by a Casper, Wyoming, boy.”
Pullen, 39, has been painting professionally for 23 years. He approached McMurry a year and a half ago to see if he would be interested in buying the painting. Pullen had the idea for at least four years, and after receiving the go-ahead from McMurry, he went to work.
His preparation included a trip to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. to study each of his subjects, and contacting someone in the Casper College Theater Department to borrow historical jackets, shirts and ties from certain time periods.
The painting is as accurate to each president as can be. Pullen sketched them based on a historical height chart, meaning James Madison (5-foot-4) was the shortest, and Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson were the tallest (6-foot-4). He even built a custom, white base frame, with two large pillars on both sides, shaped to look like the White House.
Each portrait is reflective of that president’s personality, and the significance of his time in office. The painting begins with George Washington on the top left row, his right elbow jutting out in a defensive pose.
“(I painted) Washington closed off, because there was nothing before,” Pullen said. “He was closed off to the British regiment. He starts anew.”
Herbert Hoover is on the bottom row with a forced grin, and to the right of him is Franklin Delano Roosevelt with a huge smile.
“(Hoover) got us into the great depression," Pullen said. "(FDR) pulled us out.”
Harry S. Truman is pictured toward the middle and painted smaller than those surrounding him, as if he was fading into the background.
“He was the one who decided to drop the atom bomb,” Pullen said. “I think that kind of polarized him. Nobody would push you to the front of the room if that’s the decision you made.”
Pullen said the coolest part of the project was learning about the presidents who are not well known. He would wake early, read about a president for an hour, soak up all the information he could, and paint.
“One guy had 17 mistresses,” he said. “You’re reading weird stuff, and you’re kind of blown away why this person was forgotten.”
That was one of the main reasons he decided to paint the presidents in order of their terms. It would be a learning tool for kids, and adults, who only remember the well-known presidents.
“We tend to forget about Thomas Jefferson to Lincoln. There’s a blank spot in history, because those are the guys we hear about, it’s Washington, (John) Adams, Jefferson, then all these other people, there’s somebody on a $20 bill that we know about, and then Lincoln and the Civil War,” he said.
“There are really big blind spots in history.”
The painting contains fine details, like a squinting Bill Clinton holding a cigar in his left hand. Other details require a closer eye -- the four presidents wearing black jackets were the ones assassinated in office.
Barack Obama, the 44th president but the 43rd man to hold office (Grover Cleveland was counted twice on separate terms), finished off the painting on the far right side, his left arm extended to welcome the unknown.
“Two-hundred-and-twenty-six years, right there,” McMurry said. “In good times and bad.”
Eric Wimmer, a friend of Pullen’s and the curator at the Nicolaysen Art Museum, had seen the project progress over the year and half. The piece was unveiled to the public at the Governor’s Arts Awards on Feb. 27, where Pullen was one of three recipients.
The next public showing will be at the Nic, which will host an exhibit dedicated to Pullen’s body of work from May 29 through the beginning of August.
“I don’t know if technically he’s done anything in this (presidential) piece that we haven’t seen in the past, but it’s the concept behind it and the boldness of it that we’ve not seen before,” Wimmer said.
“Usually with a painting, you have your one or two elements and the others are kind of filler space. With this one, there’s not a square inch that’s wasted on that canvas.”
As for what’s next, Pullen hopes that multiple character portraits will be his future. He’s already in the early stages of sketching the winners of the British Open, as well as a first ladies painting.
And the ideas keep coming.
“Heisman Trophy winners or Kentucky Derby Winners, I think would be really cool,” he said. “There’s so much stuff that is possible.”