A new American legacy

Like most presidential portraits, these images are majestic and prestigious. Each president is figured in a noble stance, gazing righteously at his observer.

Like most presidential portraits, these images are majestic and prestigious. Each president is figured in a noble stance, gazing righteously at his observer. At first look, you almost don’t even notice the ham.

Local artist Bijijoo’s portrait series, “The Presidential Ham,” began as a prank in 2006. While engaged in a friendly game of “larding” (described as “leaving a chunk of lard on an unsuspecting person’s porch for later discovery”), the artist upped the stakes by leaving a really unsuspecting porch gift—a portrait of Richard Nixon holding a ham. This initial artistic venture spawned the series, and after years of research and technical experimentation, he executed the paintings. The entire collection came to fruition in an impressive period of six months in 2010—up to and including Obama.

The 16″ x 20″ portraits are precise and realistic, evoking Jan van Eyck’s early renaissance paintings. Each distinguished man appears against a solid colored background, surrounded by an oval of regal ornamentation. The subjects are incredibly expressive, each face revealing a piece of the president’s personality, although seemingly indifferent to the ham. Bijijoo clearly did his homework; on his website each portrait’s digital rendering is linked to a comprehensive presidential bio including physical descriptions and personality traits.

I am reminded of an archaic set of presidential flashcards (archaic, meaning it stopped at 38th president, Gerald Ford) that belonged to my older brothers. Each card featured a portrait on the front and various memorable stats on the backside. I tried numerous times to memorize the sequence of America’s leading men, but usually lost interest around Lincoln or so. If I had known about the future of Bijijoo’s presidential portraits, I would have tossed the retro flashcards and waited patiently to embrace each of these national icons cradling a robust ham.

Educators have already started to catch on to the edifying benefits of Bijijoo’s art and humor.

“Some social studies teachers have shared it with their students,” he tells me. “I’m hoping [the website] turns into a go-to spot for people to learn about the presidents and share anecdotes.”

The portraits are a creative way to get students interested—a little information plus a little humor usually equals a whole lot of retained knowledge. The bonus is that kids are looking at actual art and not random factoids on the back of a cereal box.

This isn’t Bijijoo’s only experiment with art that can be used as an educational tool. A biophysicist by trade, his scientific background inspired a series of portraits of lesser-appreciated scientists and mathematicians like Max Planck, Andreas Vesalius and Richard Feynman. While the scientists don’t appear with ham, Feynman is flanked by a cherub that looks to be embracing a large sausage.

So, why all the cured meats? I tried to tease out some symbolism. In traditional Dutch still life, painting putrid foods are often interpreted as symbols of our own mortality. Perhaps this is the opposite—a statement about cured ham’s longevity. Maybe ham’s permanence reflects the enduring legacy of the American president.

But my search was in vain.

“This is where the larding comes in. There is no real symbolism to it,” Bijijoo says. “It’s not even a real ham.” He modeled the cuts of meat after a papier-mâchéd cornucopia purchased from a thrift store.

“The Presidential Ham” debuts this Thursday at the Basil Hallward Gallery in the art room of Powell’s Books on Burnside. The paintings aren’t for sale, but there will be prints available. As an added bonus, the cornucopia ham model will be present along with a photo booth, encouraging visitors to pose for their own ham portraits.

“I’m hoping people will share such photos with me,” Bijijoo adds.

You, too, can embrace the perseverance of cured meats. ?