Former SECAF Wilson Unveils Her Unique Portrait

The official portrait of former Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson unveiled July 28 at a socially distant ceremony breaks with tradition: While it looks like an oil painting, it’s the result of digital production, a special finishing technique, and an Airman’s original photograph.

Barbara M. Barrett, Wilson’s successor as secretary, presided at the event, invoking former Marine general and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis.

“Gen. Mattis once said that if you want to define ‘patriot’ without using words, all you need to do is take a look at Heather Wilson,” Barrett told the intimate gathering, which included Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson, acquisition boss Will Roper, and former Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley.

“He was right,” Barrett continued. “And today we will install your portrait in Arnold [Corridor] to remind all who pass just what a patriot looks like.”

The two SECAFs then shared an elbow bump after unveiling the portrait, which depicts a laughing Wilson, seated and clad in a dark suit during a visit to London. 

“It is a joyful picture,” Wilson said, reflecting how she felt among “Airmen when I was outside of the Pentagon.”

Wilson departed the Secretariat on May 21 to become president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

Video: Army Multimedia and Visual Information Directorate/courtesy

The portrait breaks with tradition in several ways:

  1. It is oriented horizontally, rather than veritically, like the other portraits in the hall. “My children would tell you that when someone ever said, ‘You know, your mom is always coloring outside the lines,’ my usual answer would be, ‘What lines?’” Wilson recalled. “Sometimes, to lead an institution forward, you have to redefine the question. You have to look at it from a different way.”
  2. Its subject is not at the center of the frame. “None of us are,” Wilson said. “We’re only here for a time, no matter what our role, but the mission and the institution endure.”
  3. The portrait came from a photograph. The original image was captured by Air Force Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank, then printed on canvas by Albuquerque, N.M.-based photographer Kim Jew and finished to look like an oil painting. Wilson noted that Jew had previously captured family photos for her. It’s the first-ever official portrait of a USAF leader created from a digital image to hang in the Pentagon.
  4. She’s wearing something old as a nod to someone new. “When her portrait is hung, my dear friend Barbara Barrett will have two suits in the Pentagon portrait collection, because that one was a gift from a dear friend,” Wilson noted. “That’s the connection to the future.”

The Air Force Association commissioned, paid for, and gifted the portrait, which was produced for a fraction of the cost of an oil painting and may mark a new trend in Pentagon art.

“AFA is pleased to make this gift in honor of Secretary Wilson, who led the Air Force with vision and grace throughout her tenure,” said AFA Executive Vice President Douglas L. Raaberg, a retired major general. 

Goldfein joked that the walls on which portraits of his service-chief predecessors and former Air Force secretaries live can sometimes give off “Harry Potter”-esque vibes, with their subjects seeming to come alive in their frames as service leaders pass by throughout the day. But the walls also tell “an important story,” Goldfein said, noting that successful Secretary-Chief teams know well that neither can affect lasting change alone, but rather the two must work in tandem leading the Air Force in “the ultimate team contact sport.”

“Ma’am, we’re a better Air Force because of your leadership, your vision, and your passion for Airmen,” he said. “As Airmen walk past your portrait, it will serve as a reminder of the incredible legacy of 24 secretaries, as we continue into the future and build upon your work. I’m honored to have served with you and for staying as Chief just a little bit longer than planned to participate in this ceremony today. May God bless the nation we love, and those like Dr. Heather Wilson, who have sworn to defend her.”