How a South Side artist became pen pals with George H.W. Bush
After decades working as a bartender at Mario’s South Side Saloon, Johno Prascak was finally making headway as a professional artist when he got a call from a high-profile friend in spring 2007.
“Are you sitting down?” Elsie Hillman, the late Pittsburgh philanthropist, art collector and political force, asked excitedly.
“Yes,” replied Prascak, intrigued. He sat perched on the edge of a stool at his South Side Slopes gas station-turned-art studio bracing for a bombshell.
Turned out, George H.W. Bush had taken an interest Prascak’s work — namely, his distinctive style of blending enamel paint with sand sifted from Pittsburgh’s Monongahela River, Hillman said. Bush liked it so much that he personally requested that Prascak paint him a portrait to hang at his presidential library at Texas A&M University.
Prascak leaped to his feet.
“It was just a joy and a shock and all the good things,” Prascak, now 59, recalled by phone from the same studio Wednesday afternoon, around the same time a presidential aircraft carrying Bush’s casket touched down in Houston.
“I did work for the Steelers and I’ve done some high-profile jobs, but this was an American president, in my view, in their library. This is how they want to be remembered.”
At the time, the blossoming artist was amazed that the 41st U.S. President even knew his name, let alone his work.
More than 10 years later, as George H.W. Bush’s body was prepared for repose at Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Prascak reflected on the $6,000 commission as not only marking a pivotal achievement in his career, but also the start to a periodic pen pal relationship with Bush. Though Prascak never met the former president in person, he came to know Bush outside politics as a thoughtful man who took time to write thank-you notes, empathized with those suffering, appreciated unique art and relished fishing, horse shoes and American flags.
From bartender to sought-after artist
Prascak, a Munhall native who grew up in Dormont, now can boast of dozens of artworks that have garnered major acclaim and prominence, including paintings shown at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the Roberto Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville and in the lobby of Heinz Field. He’s had works hung at Carnegie Library of Homestead, emblazoned on Canonsburg-based Sarris Candies chocolate boxes and displayed on network television via the hit sitcom, Will & Grace — both in its initial run’s final season in 2006, and again in the reboot this past spring.
A self-taught artist, Prascak discovered his love of painting unexpectedly, initially as a hobby to cure his boredom while grappling with life-threatening ulcerative colitis, from age 13 to 23.
The symptoms got so bad that Prascak can recall contemplating suicide. He was even read his Last Rites by a priest before recovering from a life-saving surgery.
While still bartending, Prascko delved into his passion for art, perfecting replicas of Van Gogh and Picasso paintings from library books before developing a unique style of blending paint with sand found not far from his home in the South Side Slopes.
In the warmer months, he scoops up a few buckets filled with soggy sand, then sifts it and lets it dry under the sun on cookie sheets stacked in rows along the riverfront.
The sand gives each painting distinctive layers of gritty, tactile texture, often mixed with splashes of vibrant colors amid brush strokes meandering in surprising directions for a messy, modern feel.
The technique captured Bush’s attention.
‘George, if you want a painting …’
“How did this happen, Elsie?” Prascak recalled asking Hillman, a prominent Republican and political activist who helped Bush clinch Pennsylvania in the 1980 primary election.
Hillman told him she had written to Bush about her admiration of Prascak’s work and shared a link to artworks showcased on his website, JohnosArt.com.
“He was really taken by the sand and the texture,” Prascak said.
In his March 8, 2007 letter to Hillman, Bush apologized for not being able to make it to a trip to Hobe Sound — though “it would be heaven” — because his schedule was hectic and though his hip was “healing fast, it still needs a little more work.”
“As to the Johno Prascak painting, we would love to have it for the Library,” Bush wrote on his Houston office letterhead. “If you would inquire of him, I would be glad to write or call him. I don’t believe I have ever seen a painting done with ‘Rust-Oleum and sand.’ ”
Hillman told him it was a deal even before Prascak learned of his interest.
“George, if you want a painting, you’re going to get one,” she replied to Bush, according to Prascak.
‘A great moment in my life’
Prascak spent about two months on Bush’s portrait.
He used a couple of photos of Bush to sketch an original drawing, deciding to feature him from the waist-up, donning a suit and tie with a slightly furrowed brow and a pensive look.
For the color scheme, he chose mostly blacks, whites and creams, with splashes of blue.
When he asked Hillman of her opinion and whether he should make any changes, her reply was reassuring: “That’s George,” she said. “Don’t touch it.”
Prascak anxiously awaited Bush’s reaction, relieved to hear via correspondence from the former president himself that he was quite pleased and the painting would soon be displayed at The George Bush Presidential Library & Museum at Texas A&M in College Station.
Prascak traveled to Texas to see it for himself in fall 2007.
When he saw his work hanging there, rather prominently positioned at the right side of a hallway just beyond the main corridor, Prascak recalled feeling a wave of awe and accomplishment and thinking, “It’s great to be alive.”
“It was emotional. I was almost in tears,” recalled Prascak. “I wasn’t a wreck, but was just taking it in, thinking this is a great moment in my life.”
Prascak also paid a visit to Bush’s office in Houston, where he spotted a horse shoe pit. A staffer there told him Bush was the first president since Harry Truman to install a horse shoe pit at the White House. (Bush was known to mingle with world leaders and celebrities during horse shoe games, including Japan Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, Queen Elizabeth, and John Denver.)
Prascak, who not only paints with sand but collects it from around the world, asked if he could take some from the pit at Bush’s Houston office back home to Pittsburgh. After getting approval from Secret Service, he filled up a one-gallon plastic bag with some of the sand.
A few weeks later, inspiration struck and Prascak used the horseshoe sand pit to do a 16-by-20-inch painting of an American flag. He mailed it to Bush as a Christmas gift.
Bush wrote back to thank him and tell him how much he enjoyed both paintings, among the first of several letters the pair would exchange over the next several years.
In 2011, when Prascak’s dad had fallen gravely ill, Bush wrote to him to express his sympathy and support.
That same year, Prascak wrote to Bush about a scholarship fund set up in the name of fallen Navy pilot Lt. Terrence Mulkeen, a Mt. Lebanon High School and Carnegie Mellon University graduate and a grade school buddy of Prascak’s.
At Prascak’s request, Bush wrote a letter of commendation to Mulkeen’s family at the 20th anniversary of his death.
“Boy, what a kind man and a good soul, and also a strong man, the commander-in-chief. I remember thinking, ‘This is what presidents are made of,’ ” Prascak said.
Like Elsie Hillman, who died in 2015 at age 89, and Prascak’s mom, who died at age 93, “President Bush lived a good, long life,” Prascak said.
“It would have been wonderful to meet President Bush, but that’s not a regret, it just didn’t happen,” Prascak said. “Now he’s gone, Elsie’s gone, her husband’s (Henry) gone, but I have a very small, minor footnote down there in Texas. I have the letters and I have really great memories.”
In addition to the portrait and the letters, Prascak has another treasured token of his ties to Bush. He didn’t use up all his Bush-horseshoe-pit sand on the gifted flag painting.
A small specimen tube of the carefully preserved grains sits stacked among about 500 other trays in his “Pittsburgh room” at his South Side Slopes home.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.