Ohio man captures commanders-in-chief in Etch A Sketch portraits

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- He calls himself "Mr. Etch A Sketch."

His motto is: "Shake my hand, not my work."

While other Etch A Sketch artists may be more elegant, some creating sublime characterizations of famous paintings or the world around them, there are probably none more prolific than Tim George, an artist so well-known that Ohio Art sends him specially produced Etch A Sketches to preserve his works.

On Election Night, just after the returns were announced, Mr. George, a 58-year-old bank security guard, unveiled his portrait of President-elect Barack Obama, whose likeness joined those of the other 43 presidents of the United States that Mr. George drew using an Etch A Sketch.

His 44 presidential portraits (he also drew one of John McCain during the campaign) are being displayed in a free exhibit on the ground floor of the Ohio Statehouse until Dec. 1. It's just across the street from where Mr. George works. There is only one portrait of Grover Cleveland -- although he acknowledges President Cleveland's two nonconsecutive terms, "I felt I nailed him pretty good," he said.

By his own count he has created more than 300 drawings.

Most of us can only use an Etch A Sketch to draw maybe a primitive house with a squiggly topped tree. We see our picture as a temporary vision, like building a sand castle: there until the tide washes it away. The Etch A Sketch always has the promise of another drawing, after the next shake.

When Mr. George is near the Etch A Sketches in the State House, children follow him around. He shows them the photo he took of Lyndon Johnson after waiting for four hours for the president to arrive. It is the photo he used to create his own presidential portrait.

"That's really awesome," Spencer Davidson, an 8-year-old from Hilliard, Ohio, said as he walked around looking at the presidents.

"Calvin Coolidge gave me the most trouble," Mr. George told Spencer and his 10-year-old sister, Sarah. "Look at how plain his face is."

He said he had to redo President Coolidge a few times. "I made him look like Bob Dole."

Mr. George prefers to draw images with glasses or mustaches, which gives him a line across the face to work from for the eyes and nose.

He has to do all of his drawings from a single line, since the Etch A Sketch allows for no breaks in the line.

The Etch A Sketches that Ohio Art sends Mr. George do not have the backs glued on. That way he can take them apart when he is done, remove the excess powder that could cover his lines, and take out the stylus.

He has sold some works. People have paid between $300 to $1,000 for pictures of their pets and for corporate logos. Not a bad return on a $15 toy.

Ohio Art commissioned him to create 12 Etch A Sketch drawings for its 1990 calendar celebrating the 30th anniversary of the toy.

Mr. George began drawing with an Etch A Sketch 20 years ago when his daughter, Ellie, was 4 years old and in the hospital for more than a month with open heart surgery.

He started playing with her Etch A Sketch to keep her amused, and he realized he could draw cartoon characters from the "Peanuts" and "Garfield" strips.

He moved on to drawing animals for a display that was shown at his children's elementary school, then American scenes, such as Mount Rushmore. That picture led him to try a portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt, then the eight presidents from Ohio: William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant; Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding.

In January of this year he decided to do the rest of the presidents, with an eye on the November election.

Every year he visits children's hospitals and children's museums with his Etch A Sketches. He would like to take his display of American presidents and American scenes, including the map of the United States, the White House and the Capitol, on tour.

There is no set time to do a single picture. He said he did six versions of Mr. Obama's portrait, shaking four of them and keeping two. The other is in his garage, and while he said he likes it, his wife said she didn't. He kept two versions of the McCain portrait as well.

"It's a constant thinking process," Mr. George told the children at the Ohio Statehouse who were watching him make pictures using the drawing screen.

"Most people give up before they give it a chance," he said about why so few people have mastered Etch A Sketch art.

As he drew, more people gathered around. Children and adults all watched as he turned the knobs and the stylus moved, scratching straight lines and curves to make a hand in a peace symbol.

"It's a classic toy," he said. "It's one of the greatest toys of all time."

Ann Belser can be reached at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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