YARMOUTH — When career diplomat David D. Pearce decided it was time to get serious about learning to paint, he chose watercolors because they challenged him the same way his job did.

“Sumac Bush” Image courtesy of David D. Pearce

With watercolors, artists get one shot at making a great painting. They can’t correct mistakes or wipe away brush strokes. The artist must work quickly, with the aim of capturing the essence of the subject and a sense of the moment.

“Watercolors are like diplomacy, because if something happens you have to live with it and make the best of it,” Pearce said. “There are no do-overs in watercolors and there are no do-overs in diplomacy.”

Pearce, a former ambassador to Greece and Algeria who lives in Yarmouth, is showing some of his paintings as part of the Yarmouth Art Festival, which started Wednesday and runs through Saturday at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Gilman Road in Yarmouth. He is among dozens of artists from Arundel to Indian Island who are showing original art in the exhibition. Pearce also is exhibiting his watercolors at Thos. Moser in Freeport, where he has shown his work for about a year.

As he became a better painter, Pearce also learned that watercolors make good diplomacy. Over a long career in the U.S. foreign service in Syria, Afghanistan, Kuwait and elsewhere, Pearce used his instincts as an artist, honed since his early studies at Cheverus High School and as a student of the classics at Bowdoin College, to express his inner feelings and appreciation of the landscape and culture in places where he was stationed.

Pearce, 69, said the watercolors that he posted on social media made it easier to conduct diplomatic business, particularly in Greece, where he served as U.S. ambassador from 2013 until his retirement in 2016. “Greeks are so proud of their history and culture, as they should be. When they see that someone else cares enough to paint it, they like that,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a player in Greek politics. Anything the American ambassador said was put under the microscope. This was a way for me to express myself without taking a political view. It put a human face on the American ambassador.”

He grew up in Falmouth with an admiration for Winslow Homer and an appreciation for art, picking up tendencies from his intellectually curious mother and grandmother, both of whom painted. But it wasn’t until he worked as ambassador in Algeria beginning in 2008 that Pearce made a concerted effort to become a serious painter. This was during the Arab Spring, and Pearce’s life was in danger. He was the subject of a death threat and required a security detail each time he went anywhere in the North African country. “I didn’t just make spontaneous rambles in the countryside,” he said.

Closeted in his residence on weekends, he began a methodical, systematic course of self study, starting with drawing and the concepts of perspective, light and color, and then moving on to watercolors.

“Temple of Apollo, Corinth” Image courtesy of David D. Pearce

His artwork offers an insight into his life abroad, which began when he worked as a journalist and wire service reporter for United Press International. He covered revolution in Lisbon, civil car in Beirut, and political and economic changes across the Arab world. He met his wife, Leyla, when he worked as chief Middle East correspondent for UPI. Their kids were born in Beirut. He joined the State Department in 1982 and spent more than three decades at 11 posts across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Twenty of his 35 years with the state department were spent in war zones, danger zones and what he calls “hardship posts.” He’s been targeted by RPG attacks and found himself at the center of many monumental moments in recent U.S. and world history.

“Father Superior Isidros, Varlaam Monastery, Meteora” Image courtesy of David D. Pearce

Pearce was political section chief in Kuwait before, during and after the Iraqi invasion, and deputy chief of mission in Syria when the U.S. embassy was attacked by mobs. He held senior-level positions in the the State Department in Washington and was responsible for Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He was flying with career diplomat Ryan Crocker and descending into LaGuardia Airport for a meeting at the United Nations on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He watched from his window seat as one of the World Trade Center towers burned. The second plane struck the other tower soon after they landed, and he and Crocker watched both buildings come down as they were stuck in traffic on the ground. “We knew our lives and careers had just changed,” he said. Crocker was soon in Afghanistan and Pearce was leading a task force that helped plan the U.S. response to the attacks. “The two years that followed was a very contentious period in terms of U.S. government policy making, because the State Department and the Pentagon and the vice president’s office had different views about what should be done,” he said, calling that time “the most difficult” of his career.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq for the second Gulf War in 2003, Pearce was part of the team that made the decision to go to war, though he argued against it. “I was on the losing side of that policy argument, and it was not a fun place to be,” he said. “I thought about resigning, of course. I thought, ‘This is cloud cuckoo.’ I couldn’t believe it was happening, but it did. I don’t want to sound raw about it, but frankly speaking, we knew it would be awful. It would not be quick or easy or cheap. If we did this, we would own the outcome, particularly because we were going in without international partners. But we did it, and you know what happened – billions of dollars and thousands of lives. I feel badly about that, because I was unable to persuade folks to do otherwise.”

Painting began surfacing in his life as his diplomatic posts became more stressful. Art gave him a means of processing the information he was absorbing and also a way to escape it. Painting helped him recharge, collect his wits and find pockets of peace, even if the content of his paintings often had to do with the difficult circumstances he faced. He painted many landscapes of his beautiful surroundings and the views from his residences, but he also painted the faces of terrorists, the bloated bodies of refugees who had drowned and the echoes of unrest that reverberated across his world.

“Portrait of Muhammad Nur, Afghanistan,” one of David Pearce’s paintings from Afghanistan. Image courtesy of David D. Pearce

Thos. Moser showroom manager Steve Wyman said Pearce’s paintings remind him of many old-school artists, who made grand tours of Europe and occasionally drifted into the Middle East as part of their art education. “But he wasn’t touring the world. He was working to keep the United States safe,” Wyman said. “It’s interesting looking at the detail and the brushwork that he is getting from watercolors and thinking about him painting in all those locations. His career was spent in a lot of hotspots around the world, and clearly some of them were warring countries that have experienced upheaval and conflict. His work is definitely very different than a lot of work we see in Maine. That is why we wanted to showcase him.”

By the time he arrived as ambassador to Greece in 2013, Pearce had become accomplished enough with watercolors that his public affairs officer urged him to exhibit his work. “He thought it would be a great thing to promote the ambassador as a human being as opposed to an ogre who sits behind a wall and makes up plots against Greece, which was a general perception of Greeks,” Pearce said. He wouldn’t do an exhibition because of concerns about ethics, but he began posting his paintings on Twitter. They quickly became “far more popular than our policy pronouncements,” he said.

Greece was in economic crisis while Pearce was there. It almost “bombed out” of the Eurozone, there was talk that Greece might leave NATO and there was generally a lot of anti-American sentiment. Pearce and a team of American diplomats helped Greece in its negotiations with European creditors, and Pearce actively promoted the U.S. position that it wanted Greece to emerge from its crisis stronger to play a stabilizing role in the region. “After a while, the Greeks began to feel the United States actually was trying to help, and that was good. They didn’t leave the Eurozone, they didn’t leave NATO,” he said. “My work on Twitter projecting an American face through both our policy, but also showing interesting history and culture through watercolors, was a material contribution to the good outcome there.”

Pearce follows the current turmoil involving the U.S. diplomatic corps from his home in Yarmouth. He feels sympathy for former Ukraine ambassadors Marie Yovanovitch and William Taylor, who have become embroiled in the quid pro quo political controversy involving President Trump and the Ukraine. Yovanovitch was drawn into the political fight because she was doing her job, he said.

He’s proud of his work as a diplomat, and thinks it’s important for the United States to engage in the world. That was the lasting lesson of World War I, he said. After the war, the United States retreated. It refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and declined to join the League of Nations, because some people believed the League of Nations infringed on U.S. sovereignty. “As a result, we got the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan,” he said. “And so the lesson of World War II was, we need allies and allies need us. NATO kept the peace in Europe for 70 years. That’s kind of important. These relationships all over the world are critical and they need tending. You have to show up when you don’t need something if you want people to be there when you do.”


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