Ian Reynolds is a spunky seven-year-old military kid with an infectious smile and a sense of excitement that bubbles up over everything. He also is a famous painter. . . in a very small, very select presidential circle, that is. For the last year, Ian has been writing letters, boxing up his art, and sending it to former presidents.
And he's gotten some pretty wonderful -- and surprising -- responses.
About two years ago, Ian's mother, Susan Reynolds, a military spouse, writer, and Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) activist, noticed that he was drawing. A lot. The five-year-old was going through a sketchbook a week. It kept him entertained for hours: "He was quiet, he was happy, and all he wanted to do was eat some snacks," Reynolds says.
Eager to help Ian follow his passions, she reached out to a local artist -- who is also a military brat -- for painting lessons for her son. Known in the Fayetteville, North Carolina area as Sandra Dee, Sandra Dee Nicholson lived in Hollywood for fifteen years and painted for celebrities like Alec Baldwin, worked on The Simpsons, and had her art featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. "Ian was just a moth to a flame with her," Reynolds says. "He just took to it and enjoyed every moment of it."
And then, a few months into his lessons, Ian's father, Jeremy, deployed. "Ian was just beside himself and was very sad. He was worried," Reynolds says, remembering. For the first time in his young life, Ian was cognitively dealing with deployment. "This was the first time he was worried about him being injured in combat or injured overseas. It was also the first time for answering those questions and having him say things like, 'I don't like this; I don't like that my daddy has to go away,'" says Reynolds.
But Ian had his art, which made all the difference. "When my dad was deployed, he was gone for six months. And I did painting to make me feel better," Ian says.
Reynolds seconds that statement, noting that her son regained his self-confidence and was perkier after his weekly art lessons. "I saw just how unbelievably excited he was," she says. "He has this need to create things and make beautiful things."
A few months later, Reynolds showed Ian a video of former President George W. Bush painting service men and women for his book Portraits in Courage: A Commander in Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors. They talked about the difficult decisions Bush had to make when it came to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When his mother asked him why he might be painting service members, Ian's answer was quick: "I thought that he was sad and it [painting] helped him relax and feel better."
Ian decided he wanted to send his own piece of artwork to Bush. But first, Reynolds needed to figure out exactly where to send the painting. After hours of unsuccessful research for a contact name and address, she threw up a Hail Mary and just emailed through the "Contact Us" link on the Bush Foundation's page.
"They were so excited," Reynolds says of the foundation's response. Address in hand, Ian wrote a letter and Reynolds had a giclee print made and framed of one of Ian's paintings. It depicts three sunflowers--each representative of one person in Ian's family. They sent it off.
A few weeks later, two letters came back: One for Ian and one for Ian's parents. "Painting has taught me you're never too old to learn something new," Bush wrote, calling Ian a "fellow artist."
After the first success, Ian wanted to send his pieces to all of the former presidents. "I think at one point, he thought that all of the presidents lived in the White House together," Reynolds says, smiling. "He thought that Jimmy Carter and the first President Bush and President Clinton were all there together, hanging out with President Obama."
Just a few days ago, Ian received a letter from former President Jimmy Carter after sending a painting of a flag to the 39th Commander in Chief. "I find painting to be a rewarding hobby, and I appreciate your remembering me in such a thoughtful way," Carter wrote back.
Now Ian is on pins and needles for letters from Obama and Clinton. He admits that Obama is his favorite president because he met him once at the White House: "I like President Obama because he seems to be a nice president to me."
Ian plans to send a package to "Mr. George's daddy" by next week. "I just like to send paintings to presidents," Ian says. "I just like to do what I like to do."
Presidents aren't the only recipients of Ian's pieces. His work also hangs in the Capitol Hill office of North Carolina Republican Sen.Thom Tillis. He's given pieces to military leadership, too, including the Air Force's 20th Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III.
For Reynolds, the project isn't just a feel-good story about a little boy and art; it's an exercise in democracy for her son. "I wanted to show him how accessible our leadership in this country is," she says. "Whether we like them or not, whether we voted for them or not, these men have done something that very few people have done: Be the president."
As he waits for letters, Ian's got one more presidential bucket list item. He wants to paint at the Bush Ranch with former President George W. Bush. "We've gotta make that happen," Reynolds says.
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