John Price cautions students from using his new book, “From George to Joe: The Presidents in Black & White” as a reliable source for future political science papers.
“It’s supposed to be comedic,” says the Chesterfield visual artist, who is hosting a release party for his new work of “art and satire” at Brickhouse RVA on Feb. 24. “Please don’t use this book for your school papers and book reports, kids.”
“From George to Joe” pairs Price’s meticulously rendered portraits of all 46 of America’s presidents with sardonic essays that concentrate on the, shall we say, less savory aspects of the Great Men’s lives and political careers. “I joke that everything is backed up by Wikipedia,” the author laughs. Actually, his writing and research took two years to complete, and included consulting a large number of books, including works from the White House Historical Association. “If I couldn’t verify it, I wouldn’t use it, no matter how good it was.”
His presidential portraits, drawn in pencil and graphite, each took from eight to 15 hours to complete; he finished the initial art for the book on the very day that the 2020 election was called for Joe Biden. “I did have to go back and redraw George Herbert Walker Bush and Theodore Roosevelt because I wasn’t satisfied with them,” he says, adding that some faces are just harder to get right.
In his day job, Price, 43, is a full-time artist with a studio in the basement of his North Chesterfield home. He mostly does commission work, such as murals, portraits and (especially) wedding paintings, but also sells his work at art shows. He grew up in Augusta, Georgia under unusual conditions.
“My parents were part of a cult, the Message Believers,” he says. “They believed in the word of the prophet William Branham, who is kind of obscure now but at the time was a big deal. Out of [the Message Believers] came Oral Roberts and TBN and stuff like that. Branham was very close friends with Jim Jones, and believed that Jesus was going to come back in 1977. Of course, he didn’t.”
Price loved to draw from an early age but, with his parent’s household ban on secular movies, TV and music, he had to hide his interests. “At first it was comic books,” he says of his attraction to portraiture. “I always thought it was crazy how these artists could get Clark Kent’s face exactly the same in every Superman comic book. I was fascinated that you always knew it was him. I needed to understand it. So as I would draw, I would focus on getting the likeness down.”
His first really good portrait, he recalls, was of rapper Snoop Dogg. “My mom had no idea who it was,” he laughed. “I told her it was Calvin Broadus [Snoop Dogg’s real name] and she said, ‘this is great’ and hung it up. She had no idea she was hanging up a rapper’s portrait in the house.”
Price was always attracted to history, but not necessarily American history. “I always thought that it was boring,” he says. “Roman and Egyptian history were fascinating to me but I could not have cared less about the U.S.” One day, a good friend, a fellow history buff, started talking about the American presidency. “He said, our nation is one of the youngest and yet we’ve become a powerhouse in 250 years. There’s something amazing about that, and these are the men who have changed the course of history.'”
Price was sold and eventually enlisted his friend to write short biographies for a self-published portrait book of all of America’s presidents. “I got ten portraits in and he told me that, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to write the bios. I was stuck. What do I do now? I mean, I didn’t know anybody who would just want a portrait of William Henry Harrison in their house.” A book of Presidential portraits, without biographies or context, was deemed unacceptable. “A reader would get five portraits in and say, ‘this is boring, who cares?’ So I decided to write the biographies myself.”
He’d already been experimenting with writing fiction. The artist’s girlfriend, Lynanne Jamison, who ended up editing the book and designing its cover, encouraged him to abandon his doubts about tackling historical matters. “She told me, “history writing is simply going back and verifying the info. Back it up with reputable resources.'”
Price’s realistic, often regal likenesses lie in sharp contrast to the R-rated snark on display in his write ups — detailing George Washington’s drinking habits — “he was a f**king alcoholic” — JFK’s dalliances, Donald Trump’s miserable record of achievement. The current jobholder Joe Biden isn’t spared either. “I know they have a stressful job, I get it,” he says. “I’m just poking a little fun at them.”
So who is the target audience for “From George To Joe”? Fans of portraiture, Price says, but also people who like history and have a sense of humor. “The best way we learn is through emotions, like laughter. But I’ll tell you who probably won’t like it, people who are fans of a particular president. If you love Ronald Reagan and think he can do no wrong, you may not want this book.”
John Price’s “From George to Joe: The Presidents in Black & White” will have a book launch party at the Brickhouse RVA on Friday, Feb. 24 from 5-9 p.m. The event is free. For more on the book, go to johnpricefineart.com