The faces of scandal | May 10, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 10, 2013

The faces of scandal

Forty years later, artist's portrait series recalls the high emotion of the Watergate hearings

by Rebecca Wallace

Forty years ago, political drama at the highest level captivated the country through television and radio. A fascinated Trudy Reagan sat on her Palo Alto couch and watched the Watergate hearings unfold. Then she recorded the lead players, not secretly and not on tape.

Her oil-pastel, pencil and crayon portraits continue to tell the story of the 1973 U.S. Senate hearings investigating the scandal. There's ferret-faced Hugh Sloan, treasurer of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP); adversarial advisor John Ehrlichman, complete with lip curl; beach-boy presidential aide H.R. Haldeman.

"I was riveted," Reagan says. Every spring evening when PBS replayed the day's hearings of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, she was in her living room drawing away. As an anti-war activist, she was fascinated by the politics; as an artist, she had to capture the perfect oval of convicted Watergate burglar James McCord's face.

"Such a cast of characters, central casting could not have imagined them. And the drama!" she would write later. "They were so colorful that, in spite of the fact that I was watching them on a black-and-white TV, I drew them in colors, ones that seemed to match their personalities."

Strong red for the skeptical senator Lowell Weicker, for example, and sickly green haze for New York "hush money" deliverer Tony Ulasewicz. "Like he was in a New York City subway station," Reagan says, looking up at her drawing.

Today, the artist, who often goes by the art name Myrrh, is marking the 40th anniversary of the Watergate hearings with an exhibit of her 16 portraits at Palo Alto's Midpeninsula Community Media Center. The lead players, heroes and fallen heroes and miscreants all, line a yellow hall off the center's main entrance. Most are done in oil pastel, with a few in pencil or crayon. Sideburns and horn-rimmed glasses abound.

The portraits have been shown from time to time over the years, including an exhibit in San Francisco for the 30th anniversary. Even after decades as a full-time artist, Reagan is still happy with her handiwork from long ago. "I was pleasantly surprised when I got these out," she says.

If there's a leading man here, it's Sam Ervin, the Democratic senator from North Carolina who chaired the investigating committee. Reagan was so taken with his face that he's the only one she drew twice. In one of the portraits, Senator Sam is set against a regal purple background, his nose and chin prominent, his eyebrows perpetually in motion. Ervin, Reagan wrote in her exhibit card, "was a crusty grandfather figure, drawing on immense knowledge. His outrage was also immense."

Still, the artist's favorite is the portrait of fallen attorney general and Nixon pal John Mitchell, who would serve prison time for his Watergate role. Here he is tight-lipped and small-eyed. "It has a kind of subtlety to it," she said of the drawing.

Other players on the long yellow hall include White House counsel John Dean, head bowed, his eyes invisible behind his glasses; and the old heartthrob Jeb McGruder, with pursed lips and deep-set eyes. The CREEP deputy director, Reagan said, "came across as a guy who would do anything for Nixon."

Reagan is still disappointed that she didn't get to draw Alexander Butterfield, whose testimony revealed the secret taping system in the Oval Office. He was on the stand for only 10 minutes.

In a way, the portrait project was therapeutic for Reagan after years of the Vietnam War. "I'm a Quaker and involved in anti-war activities. I just got royally depressed during that period," she says.

Reagan ended up sending one of her works to the Senate as a political protest. Different from the drawn portraits, it was a block print made from an image she carved into a styrofoam meat tray. Pictured was Nixon, waving not the victory sign but the finger. A copy of the print is in the exhibit.

The Watergate works were part of a long art career that extends to this day. A resident of Palo Alto since 1963, Reagan has a fine-arts degree from Stanford University. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president, she decided to give herself a different art name. Since then she has signed her works "Myrrh."

Many of the artist's works have been inspired by science, not politics. While she has very little training herself, she comes from a scientific family, with a geologist father and a physicist husband. "He was really my tutor," she says of her husband, Daryl. "He would read to me books like 'Are Quanta Real?'"

Reagan is drawn to patterns in nature, views of the cosmos, rock formations, visual mathematics. She's explored them in painting, printmaking, paper marbling and batik. One favorite series is "Essential Mysteries," in which she looks at large questions of science and math through large paintings on glowing Plexiglas circles.

She also started an organization called YLEM: Artists Using Science and Technology in 1981, bringing together artists and scientists to publish journals and put on forums.

These days, Reagan is writing her memoirs and poetry, and is part of the Palo Alto group Waverley Writers. Artwise, she has a newer series called "Artful Recycling," in which she makes sculptures from old electronic equipment and maps. It pays to have a physicist husband and a son who works in electronics who can supply parts.

Reagan has remained interested in politics and social issues. She has done portraits of Central American refugees, donating proceeds to Quaker projects in El Salvador. Other works have explored civil rights and advocated for compassion in the Middle East.

In 1987, Reagan was again rapt in front of the television, watching the Iran-Contra hearings. She pulls out a sketchbook and displays some of the portraits she drew then. Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state, looks extremely hawkish. And here's Fawn Hall, former secretary to Lt. Col. Oliver North. Oh, Fawn. That hair.

Anyone looking at the sketchbook would be waiting for Ollie North, and Reagan does not disappoint. Here he is in all his boyish, gap-toothed glory, and yet Reagan found something enigmatic about him. She flips through one portrait after another. "It took me about three drawings to realize that he had busted his nose at some point."

What: "Watergate Villains and Heroes," portraits by Trudy Reagan, also known as Myrrh

Where: Midpeninsula Community Media Center, 900 San Antonio Road, Palo Alto

When: Through June 29, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (by appointment on weekday evenings).

Cost: Free.

Info: For more about the artist's work, go to


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