Pictorial memorial makes unusual connections
By Patricia Lynn Henley
There are too many faces. Each one matters so deeply. Each one is incredibly important.
Together, they compose an art exhibit that began as a classroom assignment by a College of Marin (COM) instructor who thought that the first 1,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq deserved more than a smaller-than-postage-stamp-sized photo in a national newspaper.
The resulting show, "Never to Forget: Faces of the Fallen," opens Jan. 14 at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. The project has expanded well beyond its origins, traveling to other campuses, involving an ever-growing cadre of art students and instructors, and attracting national and international media attention. Unfortunately, the number of portraits has grown quickly, with participating artists racing to record the features of the latest American fatalities in Iraq.
These individual memorials to the dead create an unmistakable and unexpected connection between the living. Nurturing the process has been an extraordinary experience, says Chester Arnold, the internationally acclaimed painter and teacher who started it all in 2004 by assigning his beginning COM art students to paint portraits of a few of the first 1,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.
"I've been involved in painting and the arts for 35 years now, and I've never had an experience that's so emotional and direct," Arnold says from his Sonoma studio. "I think it's because the realities of life and death are presented in the process. These are things that most painters haven't had to deal with as imagery."
Students from Sonoma State University and Sonoma Valley High School are creating additional portraits to make the SVMA show as complete as possible. It was an extremely emotional experience for SSU student Paulette Shanklin, who has done four pictures.
"I had to allow some time between each one," Shanklin says. "My thoughts kept going to the families of these men who are no longer here. They were so very young."
Heightened emotions have been an almost universal reaction among the artists, Arnold says.
"Painting someone, even from a photograph, ended up being a very, very moving experience. People started out doing this thinking it was going to be some sort of a protest. Halfway through the portrait, they figured out this was something much deeper than a protest, something much more important than politics."
The project began in fall 2004 when the New York Times published tiny pictures of the first 1,000 dead U.S. soldiers. Arnold's class was learning to do portraits. It's standard practice to limit the palette for inexperienced students, allowing them to work with the paint without having to also struggle with color choices. Arnold had his students limit themselves to either black and white or any combination of blue, brown and white. He specified that the paintings should be five by seven inches, slightly smaller than a life-sized face.
"As a teacher, I've given out a lot of assignments over the years with mixed results," Arnold says. "The next week, people were bringing in portraits, and we had about 50 done. We lined them up in a corridor outside the classroom. When we saw them all, some of us were weeping. It was so emotional to see them all, even in that limited number."
Interest spread to Arnold's other classes, then to all of COM's art students and art department staff. The paintings began stacking up in Arnold's office.
"Students wanted to check out 10 or 20 faces to paint," he recalls. "I realized that if I had students who wanted to paint 20 faces, it might be possible to paint all 1,000 and have a show."
At a faculty meeting, it was decided to replace the traditional end-of-semester juried student art show with a display of the memorial portraits. Any media could be used, not just paint, but everyone would follow the size and color requirements of Arnold's initial assignment, giving a uniformity to the exhibit, even among a wide range of artists. The race was on to complete the portraits.
"That's all my students did, both in class and out of class, for several months, from Sept. 10, when I first introduced the assignment, to Nov. 22, when the show opened," Arnold recalls.
As word spread, COM was inundated with requests for interviews from local, national and international media, including a Russian broadcasting crew. There was also an onslaught of phone calls and e-mails from those who had lost a loved one in Iraq.
"Friendships and relationships were created by the interaction of the artists and the bereaved, which has been really extraordinary," Arnold says.
A reception was held in early December 2004. The mother and grandmother of one of the dead soldiers flew in from Tennessee. Because they had put white roses on his grave, they hung white roses on his portrait, laid them on the floor below the painting and gave a bouquet to the artist who had painted his picture.
"Even though there was an extraordinary amount of grieving, there was also an incredible compassion that was shared," Arnold recalls.
The exhibit was kept open for several months longer than planned. That spring, Arnold got a call from an art teacher at Syracuse University in New York, asking if the show could travel there. Arnold boxed everything up and shipped it out. Syracuse students added some 400 more portraits to the collection, and their entire show was installed on a single wall in the art department. Once again, the exhibit generated a great deal of media interest.
Next, the project moved to Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. Pitzer students created more portraits, and their exhibition opened Oct. 7, 2005. When it was time to ship everything back to Sonoma, the total had reached more than 1,785 pictures. With the death toll rising, local students are hustling to bring that up to more than 2,000 in time for the Jan. 14 Sonoma Valley Museum of Art opening.
Sometimes, all that's available is a name from the U.S. government, without a photo of the fallen soldier. In those cases, a simple gray square is displayed with the name of the deceased. Often, students have been able to find pictures on the Internet, from stories published in hometown newspapers, or family or friends of the deceased hear about the project and provide an image. Then a portrait is created to replace the gray square.
The pictures are kept in boxes Arnold built, 100 portraits to a box. He can still move the entire exhibit in the back of his car. Each showing of the work also includes a message wall where visitors can post their thoughts. Arnold has saved every scrap of paper associated with the portraits, from the notes written at past shows to the tiny photographs cut out of the newspaper.
"I just can't bring myself to throw anything away," Arnold confesses. "Each piece is invested with a life force for me."
The intent was to send the paintings to each soldier's family, if possible. Since the paintings are traveling to other campuses, one of Arnold's students is making duplicate portraits if a family requests one. So far he's created more than 50.
SSU art major Sheila Moore created three portraits for the SVMA show. "Her" soldiers served in the same unit and all died on the same day, at the same time. She was eager to be part of the project, but found herself procrastinating about sitting down and creating the memorials.
"I knew it would be difficult," Moore says. "It was very important that the drawings came out looking like the person, that they had the right twinkle in their eye. If the family sees it, you hope you did him justice."
Katie Peterson was also eager to be one of the SSU students creating new portraits. She did two.
"It was pretty saddening. I saw the exhibit when it was down in Claremont. I went with my dad and it was almost overwhelming to see all those beautiful faces. To sit down and do mine was difficult, but it was also a relief to know that [through these portraits] these people will always be there for their families."
Arnold intends to continue the project until the war is over, and then give the artwork to each family.
'Never to Forget: Faces of the Fallen' exhibits at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art through Feb. 26. 551 Broadway, Sonoma. Hours are Wednesday–Sunday, 11am–5pm. Admission for this exhibit is free. 707.939.7862.
From the January 11-17, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2006 Metro Publishing Inc.