Rules Committee art brings a bit of California to the Capitol

A well-placed piece of art provided House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) a lifeline when he needed it most.

It was his committee’s first hearing of the 112th Congress — on the repeal of the healthcare reform bill — and it lasted close to 14 hours.

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“At one point I got a splitting headache,” Dreier recalled in an interview in the committee’s hearing room. “I don’t get headaches, but the same thing was getting said over and over again.”

He then realized all he needed to do to feel better was look slightly to his left.

Hanging on the committee-room wall is a California seascape painted by Dreier’s friend, accomplished artist David Ashwell. The scene is a three-paneled depiction of the seemingly endless blue waters and clear skies of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Santa Monica Bay, painted from the point of view of a rustic beach house. The sun’s light glistens off the water, and, from the painting’s left panel, a gentle, green hill juts out from the ocean. Old Malibu Road slopes up toward the hillcrest.

Dreier says he wanted to bring a piece of California to the Capitol when he reassumed the committee’s chairmanship in 2010.

He said a curator told him, “There’s something that’s soothing about having really nice art around you when you’re dealing with tense and difficult situations.”

The beach house in the painting is significant to both Dreier and Ashwell because it played a role in starting their friendship. The house, which was recently razed, was owned by Dick Clark, a mutual friend to both before he died in April. The Clarks introduced Dreier to Ashwell and his wife, Debbie Tietjen. Dreier remembers spending time in the house with friends, enjoying the scenery and relaxing, and Ashwell had used the space as a temporary art studio for 11 months. (The boom-box and paint bottles that appear in the artwork were part of Ashwell’s work area.)

Ashwell was also inspired to create an original piece of art for the committee’s hearing room after he and Tietjen visited Dreier at the Capitol a year ago. Dreier explained to them that the Rules Committee always has a supermajority — nine lawmakers from the majority and four from the minority. 

That led Ashwell to create a two-paneled painting of the Capitol dome, with four-thirteenths of it on one canvas and nine-thirteenths on the other. The painting hangs behind the chairman’s seat; Dreier says it’s a constant conversation piece. 

The painting’s gray-blue sky matches the hearing room’s walls. Both Dreier and Ashwell said the color has been dubbed “Dreier Blue” on account of the congressman’s preference for it.

“It’s a bit daunting to paint the rotunda because it’s such a complex thing, but I really enjoyed doing it,” Ashwell said during a recent visit to the Capitol from his home base in Los Angeles. “The rotunda is such an obvious image, it’s in danger of becoming a cliché.” 

That’s why he gave it a new twist, he said, dividing it on two panels according to the committee’s majority. (The painting could work for whichever party is in the majority, Ashwell noted. Its fate after Dreier retires at the end of this Congress has not yet been determined. The painting belongs to Ashwell, and he would love to see it stay in the committee’s hearing room — “I can’t think of a better home for it,” he said.)

Ashwell explained his multipaneled works of art as influenced by his previous career as a director of television commercials. He spent 30 years behind the camera creating commercials in England, the United States and Italy, and he approaches his art in a similar way, often thinking in broad, horizontal sweeps. 

Though he has mostly focused on California landscapes, Ashwell has spent the last two years working on a pro bono project for Save the Children in which he paints portraits of famous people from photos of their youth. “Yesterday’s Children,” which is ongoing, includes portraits of Dreier, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other notables like Tom Brokaw, Arianna Huffington, Halle Berry and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Art: Two-paneled Capitol portrait, three-paneled landscape of Santa Monica Bay, both by David Ashwell

Location: House Rules Committee hearing room