Ohio artist

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Twenty years ago, Tim George spent weeks in his four-year-old daughter's hospital room as she underwent heart surgery. After he'd played one too many games of Candyland, he picked up an Etch A Sketch from a hospital playroom, looked at the Peanuts comic strip in the paper and reproduced the image of Charlie Brown. Thinking it wasn't half-bad, he continued to entertain her with more cartoon characters.

Over the years, his talent for using Ohio Art's iconic toy to draw more elaborate images became public. He visited schools and children's museums around the region, even producing a book called Looking at Animals With Mr. Etch A Sketch.

George's latest project - portraits of all 43 U.S. presidents, along with president-elect Barack Obama, John McCain, Washington, D.C., historic sites and Mount Rushmore - is on exhibit in the crypt of the Ohio Statehouse, where a sign warns, "Shake my hand, not my art."

How did you move from cartoon characters into more complex things?

I was invited to an arts festival and to bring whatever artistic talent. I borrowed every Etch A Sketch on the street - they had 20 of them - and I produced zoo animals.

Ohio Art called me in spring of 1989 and asked me to do a calendar to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Etch A Sketch [with] certain events of the year 1960. They wanted 12 images, one for each month. That was the year Kennedy defeated Nixon, so in November, the picture was Kennedy and Nixon squaring off. That turned out to be my favorite of that group.

How did this exhibit come about?

I got the idea for an Ohio-themed exhibit, and I contacted Greg Dodd here at the Statehouse about it. So I drew the Statehouse, and I drew the seal of Ohio and different animals from Ohio and all eight presidents from Ohio. These were on display last February and they were a big hit.

That just spawned the idea. I thought, this is a presidential year and it's going to be very historic - I didn't realize how historic - and I've always been kind of a history buff. I thought, I wonder if I can do all 43 presidents, plus the two candidates?

It took about nine months to complete. I did several versions of each president and some will never be seen. The one I had the most trouble with was Calvin Coolidge. I think I came up at least six times from the basement and got, "Nope." Or, "Who is that, Bob Dole?"

When you're working on these, I guess it's easy to start over.

It is. The most difficult thing about the Etch A Sketch, and I think people forget this when they look at my drawings, is that you're working with a continuous line. So, the demand from that is every move you make, you better think about it before you do it. If you're doing portraits, and I hate portraits, one slight move from an eye to a nose to a mouth and you can really mess up a drawing pretty easily. I try not to overwork them or overthink them. I have a vision of what I want and it takes total concentration.

Are you hoping to do a book or calendar with these?

I would like to produce a large poster with all of the presidents' portraits, and I would love to do a book.

The thing about our new president - we always seem to get the right president when we need him the most. I have the same hopeful feeling about Barack Obama that I had when John Kennedy came into office.

I actually, in my lifetime, have had the privilege of seeing six, now seven of the presidents in person, including president-elect Obama. ... Just two days before the election I came to see him. He was a very moving speaker, and I was quite impressed. I already had the drawing done. I wished I could have shown it to him. I think his kids would get a kick out of seeing it.

What: Etch A Sketch art by Tim George

When: Through Dec. 1

Where: Ohio Statehouse, Downtown