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Capturing the Beauty in Intelligence

October 25, 2023

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Every day officers crisscross the corridors of CIA Headquarters thousands of times passing historic intelligence artifacts and paintings on display. Many walk past on the way to their office or a meeting. Others stop to admire. Everyone who has been at the Agency for some time is familiar with the art and the missions they depict, but not everyone knows the artists behind the works—or that two were painted by CIA’s own, Deborah Dismuke.

When Deborah picked up a paintbrush as a child, she never imagined that she would one day join the CIA let alone earn the distinction of being the first officer, first African American, and first woman, to have her work featured in the Intelligence Art Gallery inside its Headquarters. Her works are a snapshot in time of key intelligence figures or intelligence in action, shaping the course of history.

Deborah’s passion for art began while growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I was an introvert as a child. Extremely quiet,” she shared. “I was taught by my mother at an early age how to draw basic shapes. I would experiment using crayons, colored pencils, and chalk. Early on, I found I could express myself creatively in ways that my words could not.”

As a young woman, Deborah studied at Maryland Institute College of Art. There, she learned that the CIA sought artists for its national security mission. She joined the Agency in 1987.

“The first job I held at CIA was as a Visual Information Specialist. My job was to design, produce, and finish static visual information projects supporting analysts working critical national security issues. Many of my designs were seen by senior policymakers and others across the Intelligence Community.”

All artists get inspiration from their unique life experiences and way of seeing the world around them. For Deborah, it is the perspective of intelligence work.

In 2012, CIA’s Intelligence Art Gallery showcased the first painting done by an officer. This honor went to Deborah, who titled the painting, “Message from Moscow,” which captures a critical moment during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

“Message from Moscow” depicts employees of the British Broadcasting Corporation Monitoring (BBCM) service translating Soviet Premier Krushchev’s Moscow Radio announcement that the USSR would comply with President Kennedy’s demand to dismantle its nuclear missile bases on Cuba after U-2 overflights of Cuba made the discovery less than 100 miles off of U.S. shores.

CIA unveiled another of Deborah’s paintings, “ARGO – Rescue of the Canadian Six,” in 2013 to commemorate the daring mission that exemplifies the Agency’s creativity and reliance on foreign and domestic partnerships.

“ARGO—Rescue of the Canadian Six” depicts two cover operatives—Tony Mendez and Ed Johnson (whose identity was only revealed recently, 44 years after the Argo operation)—from CIA’s Directorate of Science & Technology falsifying cover documents to pass to the Americans ahead of the sensitive exfiltration of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran.

In 2014, Deborah watched the 2002 film Windtalkers, which inspired another painting in her personal collection, “The Navajo Code Talkers.” She secured permission to use an old black and white photo of code talkers to recreate the oil painting, a process that entailed painstaking research to find the correct color pallet.

“The Navajo Code Talkers” depicts two Navajo Code Talkers who helped the U.S. Marine Corps during WW2 create an unbreakable code using the Navajo language, which was unintelligible to most. The hundreds of enlisted Navajo saved countless lives and hastened the war’s end though their honorable service was not widely known until after it was declassified in 1968.

This past year, Deborah created a portrait of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the strong-willed WW1 hero who headed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—CIA’s wartime predecessor—from 1942-45 and fiercely lobbied for a permanent U.S. intelligence body. “I chose to do this painting of Donovan because he was involved in the creation of the OSS. I wanted to create a collection for myself, recognizing various people who were either part of CIA and its history or associated with intelligence efforts that made a huge difference in the world.”

Portrait of William Donovan

Deborah, now retired, has held multiple positions within the Agency throughout her career that tapped into her creative talents—at home and abroad. These days, Deborah reflects on her life’s work and everyone who has supported and inspired her along the way. “The people I most admired and shaped my life are teachers, painters, illustrators, photographers, actors, screenwriters, and composers. When I am in front of my canvas, I hear and see them all as I’m painting.”

“Painting provides me a sense of calm. It is my ‘safe place,’ my decompression zone. Just like some people find that keeping a journal or diary is good for their well-being, I feel that creating art or music is also good for a person's well-being. It enables me, an introverted person, to tell stories on canvas without having to express myself verbally because sometimes I am uncomfortable doing that. So, just as some people say ‘actions speak louder than words,’ I use my art to speak for me and to speak to people.”

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