DAVE LEIDICH PRACTICES ART OF DIPLOMACY AT THE WHITE HOUSE

"The whole experience was surreal," says Dave Leidich, assistant to the director of the Payne Gallery. Through serendipitous timing and a couple of connections, Leidich found himself inside the White House in the company of the First Family, not once, but twice last month.

In preparation for the Bush’s upcoming move to Dallas, First Lady Laura Bush had been looking for art for their new home. "The First Lady has a wonderful sense of style," attests Leidich. "They already own several works by John Clem Clarke, and she was interested in another one."

The Payne Gallery happened to have a collection of Clarke’s paintings on hand for its "New Old Masters" exhibit, which will run March 12-April 19. Leidich was invited to bring Clarke’s "Hercules and the Pygmies" –the pop artist's take on Renaissance painter Dosso Dossi's work—to the White House for Mrs. Bush to view. After a preliminary security screening, Leidich and his wife Erin were treated like old friends. "We pulled right up to the back door, and the dogs, Barney and Miss Beazley, played around the car," he says. Inside the White House, the Leidichs were escorted to the Bush’s private quarters. Within minutes, "the First Lady walked around the corner, and greeted me with 'Hi Dave!' and a big smile. She was very down to earth." After viewing the Clarke painting, Mrs. Bush treated the Leidichs to a personal tour of the White House and grounds.

While Mrs. Bush and daughters Barbara and Jenna loved the painting, President Bush was not completely sold. Leidich was asked to return December 22 with another painting, this time a romantic landscape by nineteenth-century artist Albert Bierstadt. Accompanied by his father-in-law, Peter Silcox (a volunteer at the 2000 Republican National Convention), Leidich met President George W. Bush and the entire Bush family, shortly before the White House holiday staff party, held that evening.

"The family was really nice," says Leidich. "President Bush seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying. He was casual and very friendly —even though it was right before a big party." Leidich received another tour—this time of the Bush’s private quarters, where the works of Cezanne, Monet, Clarke and other artists were displayed. A Diet Coke can left on a table in the Lincoln Bedroom was a slice of life that Clarke himself might have appreciated.

Over the coming weeks the Bush family will decide between Clarke and Bierstadt for their Texas home. "Who knows; maybe I’ll be making a trip to Texas next," says Leidich with a laugh. Meanwhile, he's busy preparing for the Payne Gallery's John Clem Clarke Exhibit, "New Old Masters"—a display of more than 20 of the artist's imaginative interpretations of famous works, such as Rembrandt's "Night Watch." American -born Clarke (b. 1937) is internationally recognized; his work—described as "a mix of photo-realism and comic style with pop art imagery"—appears in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.