Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Art of Diplomacy

Thomas Jefferson's face is upside-down, but he doesn't seem to mind. And the smiling man on the other side of the doorway? His cheesy grin shows he's carefree too. Around another corner, a weathered old coal miner scowls, but the tired wrinkles on his face belie the relief he must feel to be on tropical vacation from his hard life in Virginia.

Panama is an unlikely setting for this summit of characters from Virginia, but they're here, hanging on the walls of the U.S. ambassador's residence in Panama City. And rather than the jungle scenes that mark this country's geography, depictions of Appalachia surround them, adorning the foyer and multiple living areas on the bottom floor of this diplomatic dwelling.

I met Ambassador William Eaton during a recent trip to Panama, where my boss and I interviewed him for a video to include in various articles in GlobalAtlanta, our international business news Web site. Mr. Eaton has been stationed there for more than three years, and his tour ends in August. A career diplomat, the ambassador has enjoyed tours in Guyana, Italy, Russia and Turkey. He speaks English, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Russian and Turkish.

Our camera equipment cleared earlier in the day by security officials, we arrived at the residence early. A commercial officer started us on a tour while we waited for Mr. Eaton, and we noticed that the decor reflected the variety of cultures he's lived in. Along with photos of himself posed with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary Colin Powell, Mr. Eaton displays a hookah pipe, an Asian coffee table and a smattering of pieces from his travels.

As we ducked through a doorway into yet another sitting area, the ambassador appeared unannounced, emerging as if from an unseen passageway. After introductions, he resumed the tour, giving us the inside story on the art he personally selected to hang in his temporary home.

The State Department allows ambassadors to select the theme of their residential decor and pays for the shipment of art to their residence. With his blank canvas, Mr. Eaton chose to give a nod to his homeland. A native of Winchester, Va., Mr. Eaton's ties to the Shenandoah Valley show through in all his selections. The obvious depictions of bubbling streams and verdant mountains hang alongside more unorthodox works created by artists from the region.

The result is a hodge-podge exhibition that lends itself to conversation, a characteristic Mr. Eaton said comes in handy during diplomatic meetings there.

Take Thomas Jefferson, for example. The aforementioned depiction of the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. president is one of Mr. Eaton's favorites. His face is upside-down, while everything else about the picture remains in normal configuration. Mr. Eaton found the piece at a Virginia gallery. As he stared at it curiously, he felt someone walk up behind him.

"What are you thinking?" a voice asked.

"I'm thinking, 'What the hell was the artist thinking when he painted this?'" Mr. Eaton replied.

Turns out, the questioner was the artist. He explained that the piece was meant to pay tribute to Thomas Jefferson's ability to see the world differently than most people of his day. A graduate of the University of Virginia, where Jefferson is practically canonized, Mr. Eaton enjoyed that explanation and purchased the piece.

But it's more than a painting to him. It's a tool. He has used it to show Panamanian business and political leaders that they, like Jefferson, can look beyond the bounds of today's political climate. They can choose to let go of the corruption and instability that has plagued Panama's past and gird themselves for a better future.

The other two pieces mentioned above were less groundbreaking. The smiling man was a work called "Say Cheese!" in which a girl had painted her shirtless boyfriend laughing. Behind him are chunks of cheddar.

The coal miner is done in color pencil specially for Mr. Eaton's residence by a woman he worked with in the U.S. Embassy in Russia.

Other fun facts about the ambassador's residence:

-The library where we conducted the interview was the site of a summit of Latin American heads of state hosted by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. I'm no historian, but an embassy public affairs officer who's also an expert in the history of the region told us stories about all the infamous dictators that had been present in the very room where we stood. A gold plaque on the wallpaid tribute to that meeting.

-The site for the residence was selected by FDR and wasn't completed until after WWII. Because metals went to the war effort, brass for the handrails on the staircase had to be locally produced in Panama. The ship carrying bathroom fixtures for the residence was sunk by a German submarine, and they had to be ordered again.

-The 48 congruent wood panels in the library represent the 48 states the U.S. had at the time.

-Mr. Eaton invited the artists for a special exhibition at his residence. Five paid their own way to come.

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