It’s portrait season in Washington, DC. The latest Trump official to get the official portrait treatment is scandal-plagued former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He unveiled his official portrait (as well as an unofficial joke one) that will serve as a reminder of his greatest accomplishment during his tenure: shrinking a national monument that tribes hold sacred and turning the land over to oil, gas, and mining.
Zinke’s portrait was painted by Montana artist Brent Cotton and shows the former secretary riding on a horse in front of a tree-capped butte. The department said the painting was funded by private donors, though it did not specify who ponied up for the portrait. The inspiration for the painting is Bears Ears National Monument, which the then-secretary visited in 2017 ahead of shrinking it. Heather Swift, a former Interior press secretary, tweeted at Deseret News reporter Amy Joi O’Donoghue, asking, “look familiar? :)”.
Indeed, it does! O’Donoghue joined Zinke on a ride through Bears Ears. Photos of them show a butte in the background that’s a carbon copy of the one in Zinke’s portrait.
“Bears Ears is a little large to me,” he told O’Donoghue at the time.
By December of that year, he watched over Trump’s shoulder as the president signed an order shrinking Bears Ears from 1.35 million acres to just 201,000 acres. That happened despite the objections of tribes, conservationists, paleontologists, archeologists, environmental groups, and 99% of the public who commented on the issue.
Cotton has said the portrait includes a “nod to his respect of the native Americans tribes” (sic) in the hat band. Again, Zinke chose to shrink Bears Ears over the opposition of five tribes who hold the land to be sacred and originally convinced President Barack Obama to set it aside.
On the same trip, Zinke chatted up O’Donoghue and ranchers about Bears Ears, he also got a little aggressive with Indigenous Bears Ears advocate Cassandra Begay after she asked him to listen to people asking to keep the monument protected. In a video posted of the incident, Zinke can be seen turning and jabbing a finger at her while scolding “be nice.” Not how I’d show respect to someone, even if I disagree with them, but then I’m also not someone who would get embroiled in 17 known probes into misconduct nor lie to federal investigators.
Center for Western Priorities Deputy Director pointed out on Twitter the hat also appears to be on backwards, which is actually aggressively on-brand for Zinke. The flowers in the foreground symbolizing his wife, kids, and grandkids is a nice touch.
The fact that the former head of the agency in charge of public lands wants to be memorialized as the guy who turned public lands over to extractive industries is one heck of a way to be remembered. It certainly flies in the face of previous secretaries: Sally Jewell was depicted in front of Mt. Rainier while workers built a trail, and Ken Salazar was painted chilling in front of the family ranch with family members.
What’s truly wild about Zinke’s portrait unveiling, though, is the “unofficial” portrait. In a bit of what appears to be humor, someone Photoshopped his head onto a painting by fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. Instagram posts by those in attendance, including the husband of an OAN anchor, a defense lobbyist, and a failed Republican Senate candidate who was embroiled in the president’s impeachment scandal show Zinke with both the portraits.
The original Frazetta painting is known as “Death Dealer VI” and was also featured on the cover of the second issue of a comic book called Death Dealer put out by Glenn Danzig (I know, it’s a lot to take in). I have a lot of questions about the choice. Frazetta’s Death Dealer does make appearances throughout the Army, but Zinke is a former Navy Seal, so that doesn’t square up. Is it a reference to fighting swamp monsters? Does that mean Zinke is battling himself? Did someone just goof and mix up an Army-related image with Zinke’s Navy background?
Or did Gizmodo’s data journalist Dhruv Mehorta get it right in a Slack chat: “I wonder if Death Dealer is just The Punisher for bureaucrats.”