A Watercolor Lesson for Eisenhower and a Memorable Day for Kansas City Artist Jim Hamil

Author’s note: The following account is based on three interviews with Jim Hamil, as well as research at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas, and at the Hallmark Cards Archives in Kansas City, Missouri.

Jim Hamil, a young artist in 1961 at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, looked up from the watercolor painting on his table to see the commotion in the creative department. What he saw startled him. A group of executives stood in front of his office cubicle, and with them was former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike peered over the office partition to see the painting, then raised his penetrating icy-blue eyes and looked directly at Hamil.

“Are you painting with watercolor?”

“Yes,” Hamil responded.

The former president took a long pause at Hamil’s office, as if he wanted to know more. He seemed curious about the medium and had a look of genuine interest, but due to his tight schedule that day, he continued his walk with the executives through the department. Hamil wished there could have been time for a discussion with the former president. He had no inkling of what was to occur the next day.

At Hallmark founder J.C. Hall’s request, Eisenhower was in Kansas City to speak on Friday, Nov. 10, 1961, at the rededication of the Liberty Memorial, Kansas City’s monument to World War I. Hall and other civic leaders had organized a committee to refurbish the monument and to give it a grand rededication during the Veterans Day weekend.

Hall’s friendship with Eisenhower grew in 1950 when Ike was planning for his museum to be built in Abilene, Kansas, to house the memorabilia from his storied military career. Through the years, Hall printed Eisenhower’s personal and official Christmas cards during his presidency. Hall also lithographed some of Ike’s artwork for him to give as personal gifts to White House staff and close friends.

Ike and his wife, Mamie, were staying in Kansas City as guests of J.C. Hall. Their accommodations were in a new penthouse apartment which had just been completed atop the modern Hallmark headquarters building. After the brief visit at Hallmark, Ike and J.C. were escorted to a downtown luncheon and then to the Liberty Memorial for the afternoon speech.

Saturday, Nov. 11, 1961, began with Jim Hamil relaxing at his parents’ house, where he was living at the time. Hamil graduated from the University of Kansas with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1958. He was hired at Hallmark Cards because of his watercolor talent. It was a plum job for a young artist, and he enjoyed the camaraderie among the creative staff.

Early Saturday morning the phone rang, and his mother answered. After a pause she said, “Jim, there’s a person on the phone . . . Jeanette Lee, from Hallmark. She wants to talk with you. Be sure to speak up. Mrs. Lee says she is under the hair dryer.”

The call caught him by surprise. Why would Jeanette Lee, one of the top executives at Hallmark, be calling him at home on Saturday morning? Her pressing message was: “President Eisenhower wants Hallmark to show him some watercolor.” Ike had been intrigued by seeing the creative department and wanted to get more information about the watercolor process. She asked Hamil if he would be available to drive to headquarters and be ready at noon to give Ike a demonstration.

Hamil assured her he would be glad to do it. As he drove to headquarters, he thought about how he would structure the watercolor lesson. He was aware of the former president’s artistic hobby, and he knew Eisenhower painted strictly with oils. He had viewed Ike’s paintings and lithographs at Hallmark.

Eisenhower was encouraged by Winston Churchill to take up the hobby of painting, as Churchill found it a great outlet for stress and a rewarding experience that uplifted his spirit. In 1948, during his stint as Columbia University president, Ike set up a simple studio in the upper floor of the house he and Mamie occupied on the campus. The out-of-the-way space seemed an ideal hideaway, and he spent a few hours a week at his self-taught hobby.

The painting continued into his U.S. presidency, and Ike retreated to a small studio on the upper floor of the White House for an evening or two each week. He described his creations on canvas: “They are daubs, born of my love of color and in my pleasure in experimenting, nothing else.”

Hamil arrived at the Hallmark headquarters building, checked in at the guard station and hurried down the empty corridors of the building. Once he arrived at his office, he realized he had a problem. All of his supplies, the dirty gray palette, the worn brushes and the curled tubes of paint were a mess. He decided he needed to have nice new brushes and paints for the special time with Eisenhower.

Hurrying to the artist supply store in the creative library, he quickly gathered some new items and proceeded to the guard station. One of the guards escorted him to the elevator and directed him to the private penthouse floor.

When the elevator doors opened, Hamil entered the new penthouse lobby, a different world, with modern furnishings and a goldfish pool with a fountain. He proceeded to the apartment living room where Eisenhower and an old Army buddy were sitting at a table, having a drink and swapping stories. When the visit ended, Hamil introduced himself and shook hands with the former president. Ike said he had time available for the lesson because Mamie was resting from some emergency dental work that morning.

Hamil suggested they utilize the view of the downtown Kansas City skyline from the north windows in the apartment. He arranged the supplies and the watercolor board on the table to allow Ike to practice during the lesson. He shared with Ike that an easel, which is normally used with oil painting, should not be used while painting with watercolor because the effects of gravity cause the water and paint to run toward the bottom of the board.

Eisenhower had taught himself how to paint with oils and told Hamil that when he attempted to set up his easel in and around Gettysburg, crowds would form to talk with him or ask for his autograph. A friend had suggested that he learn to sketch with watercolors or get a camera and photograph the scenes he wanted to paint.

As the lesson began, the old Army general emerged and asked Hamil his age and where he went to college. Hamil answered politely while attempting to be professional in his concentration, wanting to give Ike the proper demonstration and guidance.

They looked out the window, and he shared that it was important to study the view carefully, to take in all of the important details. Hamil raised his arms and framed the view with his hands. As he moved his arms in and out he said, “You have to decide how far out you want to go.” They looked at the skyline, and he pointed out the art deco style buildings and the autumn foliage in the park.

On the practice pad, Hamil demonstrated how to create a watercolor wash and had Ike practice a few washes. Hamil began to paint the skyline, and at different times he encouraged Ike to participate by adding different colors to the washes of the trees and sky. He told Ike that watercolor is a “quick medium,” and that he needed to put a darker color on the brush because the paint would dry to a lighter color.

The skyline began to take shape as he continued to give tips and pointers to the former president. The time had gone by quickly, and he realized the two of them had spent about an hour and a half together at the table.

With the lesson completed, he gave Ike some of the brushes and tubes of paint. He felt somewhat embarrassed when Ike thanked him effusively for sharing his expertise. Gathering up the painting and supplies, Hamil said goodbye and returned to his office.

On the drive home, Hamil decided that he would send Eisenhower his skyline painting as a gift. He had shared his talents with one of the most important men in modern history. Yet Ike had a simple desire to learn how to paint with watercolors. It was something important to him at that point in his life. On that Saturday afternoon in 1961, Jim Hamil felt he had satisfied the former president’s request.

In 1966, Hamil was requested by Ike and Mamie to create a watercolor of their Gettysburg living room and hearth for their Christmas card, which was produced by Hallmark.

The colorful painting includes mementos from friends and dignitaries. The hearth, which had previously been in the White House during part of the 19th century, was given to Ike and Mamie in 1954 as a gift from the White House staff.

For more about the artistic pursuits of Eisenhower and Churchill, visit the exhibits, “Presidential Christmas Cards – Dwight D. Eisenhower” and “Winston Churchill, A Painter” at the Hallmark Visitors Center in Crown Center through December.

About The Author: Gregory Larson

Gregory Larson

Gregory Larson is a retired architect and is now a watercolor artist, researcher and writer of non-fiction articles about art and architecture history as well as memoirs. His blog, Around the Bend, has attracted a wide readership over the past ten years. He has developed an online watercolor gallery at LarsonCreativeLLC.com.

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