Portrait Painting and Coaxing History

I am an artist, and for the last three and a half years I have been engaged in a project entitled 100 Faces of War Experience. This project started as a purely artistic endeavor, but it has become increasingly engaged in the concerns of history and the humanities.

As a portrait painter I had decided to explore the question, "What is the nature of the American experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?" My initial idea was the creation of a group of portraits that would hang together as an installation. Each painting was to be a portrait of someone who went from America into the wars in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

As soon as I started pursuing this goal, it became obvious that the process of creating a portrait was yielding some unexpected discussions that had historic value. Over the years, the project became increasingly about the concept of developing a useful and compelling history born out of the artistic process of creating portraits.

I can illustrate the transformation of an art project to something more multi-disciplinary by describing the production of one painted portrait.

It starts with a compulsion. I am compelled to paint traditional representative portraits. Improbable as it seems, I think that the creation of a portrait can play a powerful roll in conveying the complexity of the American experience of war. This is my starting point for every portrait.

I have been working with this idea for 39 portraits now. For the sake of this essay, we will start in mid-August, 2008 and follow the production of the portrait of Phil Gorman.

At that time I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a condo complex in Connecticut. I unloaded my portable studio from the car, and met Phil Gorman at the door of his unit. Phil had been referred to me by a friend. He is an Army Staff Sergeant who served as a medic in Iraq in 2005. That was the first time we had met.

In his dining room I arranged the lights, set up my easel, arranged my brushes and prepared my palette with the oil paints. When I finished, he sat down and I asked him to turn his face and body so that the light would fall across his face in the same manner it had fallen across the faces of other people whose portraits have been included in the 100 Faces project. When I was ready, I picked up my brush and looked into his face. I tried to reproduce on the canvas what I saw.

While I was painting, we talked. It is more important to me to get a feel for the personality of the person I am working with, than to have them stay still. This is also the part of the process that yields a depth of understandings of the experience of war. People talk in this context in a different way than they might otherwise.

I let Phil know that I have heard some heavy things. I let him know that I have my opinions but that the project isn't about my opinions. Phil was quiet about his specific experiences. I wasn't about to push him to talk about stuff he didn't want to talk about. However, it is inevitable in this environment that you learn a great deal about things that are not explicitly stated. For example, one thing we talked about was the methods and substances he had to use to be able to sleep after returning home. We also talked about the suicide of one of his friends who had also been in Iraq. Over the course of the session I found that I had developed respect and empathy for Phil; this happens with everyone in the project.

After about two hours I took a photograph and packed up my stuff. The portrait would be completed using the photograph and my memory as a reference when I returned home to my studio.With the first portrait I did for 100 Faces it became obvious that the conversation which happened in order to gain an understanding of the sitter's personality was important to the central idea of creating a deeper understanding of the nature of war experience. As a result of this realization, I have asked each person since the first portrait to provide a half page of writing to accompany their portrait. With these statements I hope that the public can be brought to into the conversation. I think it is important for the people pictured to decide what they want their statements to say. This is a chance for them to represent themselves in their own words. There are no criteria for this statement other than it should be less than 250 words and it should be different in some way from all the other statements in the project. I encourage participants to provide materials written while deployed such as letters, email, and journal entries.

Often I like to finish a portrait before looking at the statement that the person provided. Here is what the completed portrait of Phil looks like:

Following is the statement I received from Phil, an email from the time of his deployment:

Hey hon,
What a day! We've only got about 2 weeks left in this dump and today was my last shift in the ER. We had 17 MEDEVACs today!! There was this one, my last patient here. His name was Andrew, he just turned 24 a couple of days ago, young wife, new baby, etc etc. Shrapnel to the side of the head… there was nothing I could do. I tried and tried, tried everything I could think of; but he died anyway. This was not the way I wanted to end my tour. I pray that this is the last person that I have to watch die, but that doesn't make it any easier to deal with this one… or the 18 that came before him. I have a feeling that Andrew is going to stick with me for a long time. Well, we're leaving this place in a couple of weeks and should be all the way in about a month or so. I can't wait to see you!! I hope all is well with you and I'll see soon.

It is hard for me to look at this statement with a detached, historical, perspective.

However, what I can do is to place the painting and Phil's statement into a context. That is the next step. Upon completion of Phil's portrait I posted the portrait and statement on the website, then, days later, hung the portrait with all the other portraits and statements in an exhibition. The exhibition was held at a not for profit art space called the "Hygienic" in new London, CT in conjunction with a therapy oriented group called "Wounds of War".

At this exhibition, as at every of the previous twenty exhibitions of 100 Faces, people come up to me and ask one question in particular. The question is not, “How do you make these paintings?” The question is, "How do you decide who you will paint?" It seems the primary concern to the general public is that this group of portraits and statements be a representative group of those who go to war. Could it be that the public is deeply concerned about a balanced presentation of history?

In case this is true, I have spent months preparing for that question. In some ways I am happy to hear the question because creating a "true" historical picture is of critical importance to me. The idea of developing a deeper understanding of the American experience of these wars requires that a group be created which is in some way representative of all of America.

With the portrait of Phil Gorman, his race, gender, job while "in country,” exposure to combat, time of deployment, branch of service, and home state all played a role in his being selected to be in the 100 Faces project.

For this project that started out of an artistic impulse, I have ended up researching extensively the statistics of the deployment and trying to create what I understand now to be a combination between a "range sample" and a "representative sample" of the experience. The goal is to create a group with the greatest diversity of experience and of background, yet to also show the things that are typical of the American experience of this war. Care is also taken to try to present a wide range of apparent views regarding the war, the military, politics, and culture. Two sociologists and a historian have reviewed my process and have said it seems like a reasonable way to represent a group.

Therefore, with the portrait of Phil we have gone through three steps: the production of the oil painting, the production of a written document, and the placing of the painting and the document within the context of a carefully constructed group. Every step along the way was developed as a result of that original question: "How can one create a deeper public understanding of the American experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

One more step remains now: interpretation. The need for some form of guided discussion about, and interpretation of, this project has been something that I have struggled with from the beginning. Perhaps it has taken so long to actually create interpretive materials because I knew I could not enter into that part of the process alone.

The need for interpretation is also something that becomes evident at exhibitions. Picture Phil's portrait hanging next to the other portraits in the project. Each one of them has the potential to inspire empathy in the viewer, yet each one of the portraits has a statement next to it that is concerned with a completely different aspect of war experience. Many statements seem to directly contradict each other in spirit. More than once a viewer at an exhibition has approached me with a distraught expression and said, literally, "I don't know what to think."

I would not presume to tell people what to think regarding the American experience of these wars, and I certainly do not think that the role of the humanities is to tell people what to think. Also, it seems a positive thing that people's preconceived ideas are being challenged. However, once preconceptions have been challenged, the groundwork has been laid for a learning experience. It would be helpful to provide more of a framework within which people can consider these experiences of war in a way that is conducive to learning. I find that this is exactly the point at which my practice as an artist meets its boundaries. This is the place at which I intend to collaborate with people gifted in the humanities in order to further develop this exploration into the nature of war experience.

Back to the portrait of Phil. If we look at the portrait and the statement, some questions come to mind that could add something to the discussion. I am speculating now about what the scholars I am collaborating with might have to say about this portrait. The people I will be working with will be working on several different interpretive guides and events. One scholar, Dr. Robert Meagher, has a great depth of knowledge in relating the experience of modern warfare to the way the people of ancient Greece experienced warfare. Several other people who will be helping will be creating an interfaith guide to looking at the experience of war. Former marine and Iraq veteran Tyler Boudreau, author of Packing Inferno: the Unmaking of a Marine, will help to create a discussion guide for classrooms and groups looking at the project.

I very much look forward to their contributions. With their help, the project will achieve a new kind of fulfillment, and the portrait of Phil will reach another level of interaction.

As a painter I believe that the practice of painting needs no justification other than itself. However, I have chosen to pursue a project that seems to become stronger and more meaningful as it crosses disciplines. I find it necessary to come out of the known challenges of art production and into the territories of history and collaboration with humanities scholars.

Most art, at some point, enters a social realm where it is interpreted and presented within a determined context. The events described here are just an outline of how the process is occurring for one current work in progress.

Author: Matthew Mitchell

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