David Lauderdale

This Hilton Head artist got to paint Barbara Bush's portrait — and it changed her life.

Candace Lovely of Hilton Head Island, S.C., holds Mac the dog while painting a portrait of first lady Barbara Bush and her dog, Millie.
Candace Lovely of Hilton Head Island, S.C., holds Mac the dog while painting a portrait of first lady Barbara Bush and her dog, Millie. Submitted

Barbara Bush changed the life of Hilton Head Island artist Candace Whittemore Lovely.

The first lady invited Lovely to paint her portrait in a garden at the White House in the summer of 1991.

"Barbara Bush became a mentor," Lovely said Tuesday, hours before the popular former first lady died at age 92.

They exchanged notes for years, the last hand-written one coming from Bush a year ago.

"She encouraged me with her love," said Lovely.

Bush made the young impressionist feel at home in the White House family quarters, the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden and even the Oval Office during five hot days they worked together in July 1991.

"She had JOY," Lovely said. "For her, it was Jesus, Others and then Yourself. She had true joy."

From then on, Lovely said, she would think before she acted.

"What would Barbara do?" she would ask.

Lovely lived in Kennebunkport, Maine, at the time, where the Bush family has a home. And just as she does on the beaches of Hilton Head Island, Lovely painted many portraits of children by the New England shore. She got the idea to reach out to Barbara Bush to ask if she could paint her grandchildren.

Lovely called the White House. They answered the phone. She was told to write the first lady. Lovely asked what to call her. She was told, "Call her Barbara."

Bush responded. She said she had too many grandchildren to take on such a project, but she liked Lovely's work and would keep in on file.

Later, Lovely got calls from an art museum director asking is she had ever painted dogs.

Finally, she got a call asking her to come to the White House to paint a portrait of Barbara Bush.

Going up the elevator to the family quarters, Barbara Bush asked, "How do you feel?"

"I'm nervous."

"Oh, don't be nervous. Call me Barbara."

Artist Candace Lovely of Hilton Head Island, S.C., with Barbara Bush and President George H.W. Bush at the time she painted the first lady's portrait in 1991.

They rifled through three closets to choose the right dress for the first lady to wear.

Together, they worked through details of the location, the focus of the painting, and the props.

The first lady suggested her grandchildren be in the painting. That was 12 sets of hands and faces, Lovely thought. She told the first lady to pick five grands for the painting.. Barbara Bush said she couldn't choose five.

In the end, Bush said in her patented direct way, "I want my pearls and Millie in the painting."

And that's what is in it, along with a book. Bush at first brought three children's books. That was the year her story told through the voice of her famous dog Millie became a best-seller.

Lovely convinced Bush to go with one adult book. It represents Bush's push for literacy.

The first lady did not want her knees to show. So she put Lovely's floppy hat over them.

"She had beautiful legs," Lovely said. "She was in great shape. She had been swimming at 6 a.m. before posing in the garden for me."

Bush was 66 at the time.

The circular motion in the hat represented the world, which the Bushes knew so well, along with all the world leaders.

"She had just flown in from Turkey when I met her," Lovely said.

Bush held Millie, and Lovely was glad they let her keep Millie's tongue hanging out on the hot day. The pose captures Bush as she looks up while reading.

Millie kept things real for the nervous visitor. It was as if Millie told her how to act, Lovely said. At one point the dog posed with the floppy hat. And at another, she had five tennis balls in her mouth.

When Bush saw a sketch of the portrait, she liked it so much she said, "Let's go show George."

The president had few words when they walked into the Oval Office. He approved.

Lovely didn't want to say much either. She was worried her dyslexia would leave her stammering nonsense to the president.

Back home on Hilton Head, Lovely's father carved the frame for the portrait at his Hilton Head Plantation home.

About the time Lovely presented the finished product to Barbara Bush, things were sad at the White House. George H.W. Bush had lost his re-election bid. The painting went with Barbara Bush.

"She is a historic figure," Lovely said. "Who lived a life like that? She did so much for America, and she did so much for me."

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale