She Answered a Call from Washington

Last March, Barbara Ernst Prey, a watercolor artist who grew up in Manhasset and lives in Oyster Bay, received a telephone call from Laura Bush’s chief of staff asking her if she would like to create a painting for this year’s White House Christmas card.

“I don’t think I can say no, was my first response,” she said in a recent interview at a diner in Manhasset.  “I quickly followed it with, ‘I would be honored to do the Christmas card for the President of the United States.’”

But after the call, Ms. Prey said, she went numb.  “It was overwhelming to realize that you are going to be working on a commission that’s going to be sent to all the leaders of the free world,” she said.

Ms. Prey, 46, has been painting for 30 years.  Her mother, also an artist, was a close friend of Hugh L. Carey’s family.  Ms. Prey sold her first watercolor to Mr. Carey when he was governor; she was then 17 and attending Manhasset High School.

A graduate of Williams College and Harvard University, where she received a master’s degree in fine arts, she was also a Fulbright scholar and studied with a Chinese master painter on a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Her paintings are in private collections, she said, as well as at the Farnesworth Art Museum in Rockland, Me., and Williams College Museum of Art, among other public collections.  She has also done illustrations for The New Yorker and other magazines.

Ms. Prey said she had no clue she was being considered to create the White House card this year.  But the Bushes were familiar with her work; they own two of her paintings, gifts from a cousin who lives in Maine, where Ms. Prey also has a studio.

Like many things in Washington, her assignment was top secret.  Aside from her husband, a Presbyterian minister, and her two children, ages 11 and 13, she told no one.

A month after she received the call, Ms. Prey went to the White House to discuss the project with Mrs. Bush.  They walked the exterior grounds of the White House and the interior, exploring ideas.  “She was very involved and hands on,” Ms. Prey said.

They decided on an image of the interior.  “It was a challenge for me,” the artist said.  “I do mostly landscapes, but it was wonderful to roam the different rooms and be able to sit in them to sketch and be surrounded by all that history.”

After seeing preliminary drawings of the Blue Room, the Diplomatic Reception Room and a mirror in the State Dining Room, Mrs. Bush selected the one of the reception room, which was the site of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats.

From April through August, Ms. Prey made five or six visits to the White House, she said, staying a few days each time.

“I took photos to work with from home and also worked from photos in the White House taken last year when the room was decorated for Christmas,” she said.

The finished project shows a festively decorated fireplace with a blazing fire flanked by two bright yellow chairs.

“I was nervous when I presented Mrs. Bush with it because I was afraid there would be changes, which is very difficult if not possible with watercolors,” Ms. Prey said.  “Instead of just painting over the work as you can do with oils, it usually means doing the entire piece over.”

She need not have worried.  Mrs. Bush liked the result and later decided to use the two other preliminary sketches for invitations to White House holiday celebrations.

The final card was sent to Hallmark for production, as were the other Christmas cards of President Bush and his father.

White House Christmas cards are a tradition that began with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.  His card that year featured a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, painted by Eisenhower himself; 1,100 of them were sent out, according to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kans.

This year, the Bushes sent out a record million and one half cards.