'American Presidents: Life Portraits' exhibit draws strong reviews

February 9, 2010

Purdue students, from left, Britney Young, Wesley Fleming, Lauren Seid and Osamudiamen Evbuomwan-Owa check out the C-SPAN exhibit "American Presidents: Life Portraits" in the Hicks Undergraduate Library. The exhibit, which features oil portraits of all U.S. presidents, historic newspaper front pages and audio speeches from the last 17 presidents, is on display through Feb. 21. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Around 20 students from Noblesville's Guerin Catholic High School received more than a history lesson Thursday (Feb. 4) when they visited Purdue's Hicks Undergraduate Library.

In touring C-SPAN's exhibit "American Presidents: Life Portraits," the students were able to combine history with art and literature.

"It was just a different experience for our students to get information instead of the regular classroom," said Meaghan Neman, teacher of the Guerin Catholic group of juniors. "Our students are pretty artistic, and art is something we tend to overlook in history. I thought it was very well done. Our students enjoyed it."

The exhibit features the only complete collection of American presidential oil portraits by one artist, North Carolina painter and sculptor Chas Fagan, who happens to have another connection to Purdue. He sculpted the statue of Neil Armstrong that sits in front of university's Armstrong Hall of Engineering, which was dedicated in October 2007.

Additionally, the exhibit includes photographs contributed by the White House Historical Association that capture each president's time in the White House, historic newspaper front pages declaring presidential election results and audio speeches from each president dating back to 26th president Theodore Roosevelt.

"People seem to be enjoying the art and history," said Dawn Stahura, a library assistant who organized the exhibit for Purdue. "It's often older people who come over to see it, and students are already here in the library and many of them stop to look at it."

Richard Blanton, a Purdue professor of anthropology, is glad he toured the exhibit.

"It's beautiful - very interesting," he said. "I liked the chronological layout, and I was interested in how the presidents are portrayed. The newspaper reporting was a very good idea. Overall, it's a nice, brief summary of U.S. presidents. It's not too long, and it's readable. It's visual and very attractive. My wife wants to see it, so we'll probably go back."

Guerin Catholic's students took their visit a step further than simply viewing the exhibit. Each class member picked a president to analyze, and the group went into the iLab, a laptop-equipped instructions space within the library, to write papers.

"They analyzed the artwork for such things as hairstyle and clothing and the literature for what was going on at the time that might have affected their portrait," Neman said.

The exhibit has traveled to many presidential homes and libraries and was on display in the nation's capital during the 2009 presidential inauguration.

The exhibit will remain at Purdue through Feb. 21. Hicks Undergraduate Library hours are 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sundays.

Writer: Jim Bush, 765-494-2077, jsbush@purdue.edu  

Sources:   Dawn Stahura, 765-494-2762, stahurad@purdue.edu

                   Richard Blanton, 765-494-4681, blantonr@purdue.edu