Politics aside: The story behind the Colorado State Capitol's presidential portrait painter

Posted at 4:39 PM, Aug 09, 2019

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- There’s a certain sense of overwhelmingness when an artist begins with a blank canvas. Some call it a white canvas syndrome, a fear of the immense possibilities ahead and the potential for failure.

“The blank canvas is terrifying, absolutely terrifying,” said old master painter Sarah Broadman.

Art runs in her family; Broadman’s father built instruments and rocking horses, her mother made miniatures and her brother paints.

In an art studio that takes up the entire lower level of her Colorado Springs home, Broadman uses oil paints and canvas to capture the likeness of people through portraits.

It’s something she has been doing for years; portraits she painted of her family members hang on just about every wall of her house.

“You portray emotions, human beings, their life, their soul,” she said. “People think that eyes give the person their life, but the mouth actually gives them their likeness.”

In recent years, though, her portrait paintings have turned to presidents. Broadman was commissioned by the Colorado State Capitol to paint former President Obama in 2011 and President Trump this year.

“It’s an enormous step in a portrait painter’s life,” she said. “There’s pressure in every direction. I get pressured to painting this certain style from one group of people and a different style from someone else because it’s a political thing.”

Painting a president isn’t easy. After filling out a lot of paperwork for the commissioning of the painting, she sifted through nearly 14,000 photos of President Trump to find the right one to paint. The process of picking the right picture alone and getting it approved took about six weeks.

“It had to be narrowly navigated to find something that is not on one side or the other politically, and yet I still want to get the portrait painted of that person and their soul and their being,” she said.

For Broadman though, the politics don’t matter. Instead, she tries to find a way to capture the president’s personality without turning the painting into a political statement.

“At the door of my studio I tried to leave any politics behind. I paint the essence of a human being. That’s what I do,” she said.

For former President Obama, she looked for a photo that encompassed both his personality and the historic relevance of his election.

“He was the first African-American president. He needed to be proud,” she said. “He had to be brave, chin up, and kind of looking into the future, which he did not understand. At that point, he did not know what the future would bring.”

For President Trump, on the other hand, Broadman wanted a portrait that made him look strong and thoughtful.

“I didn’t want him to look angry because a lot of pictures out there show him angry,” she said. “He knows where he stands on issues, whether or not the country stands with him, but he knows where he stands and I wanted that to show.”

The two portraits now hand side by side in the Capitol rotunda.

Along with thinking about the portrait itself and how to capture the essence of both presidents, Broadman took their placement in the rotunda into consideration.

It’s all about directing the viewer’s eyes to the right areas to keep them looking at the paintings as long as possible.

Broadman decided to paint President Obama staring off in the distance while President Trump is looking directly out at the viewer.

“I like his direct gaze. It’s very confrontational and my way that I chose to put it in the painting,” she said.

She purposely decided not to have the presidents looking at one another to avoid the feeling of confrontation since the portraits hang side by side.

“They would’ve been facing, and it would’ve looked a little bit like a battle and I didn’t want that,” she said. “We are looking at human beings and their own challenges in this particular situation, such as President Obama bravely taking on things and President Trump solidly sitting there not taking the enormous flack that he gets.”

For Broadman, the most important part of these presidential portraits is that they need to be timeless, so that future generations can look back at them and not have to worry about looking through the politics of the time, but remember the president as a person.

“His portrait and President Obama‘s portrait will move into history,” she said. “In 100 years, if things are still standing, people can say, ‘Oh that was a president then,’ as we do with the other ones in the gallery now.”

Broadman says she sees the portraits as part of her legacy and the mark she can leave on Colorado’s history.

Despite President Trump and former President Obama’s political differences, despite the issues of the day or the partisanship the country is currently facing, inside the Colorado capitol rotunda, these two presidents will stand stoically side by side forever, politics aside.