Monday, September 30, 2013

Gold Star Program 2013

Last week I participated in another Gold Star program sponsored by the Auxiliary of the VFW. They honored 18 Blue Star families and two Gold Star families. Army Chief Warrant Office James Groves III was near the end of his final tour of duty. Retirement was less than a year away when he was killed in Afghanistan on March 16, 2013.

I prepared a talk for the program which I will share here, along with an image of the painting I did. This is the eight Gold Star portrait I have painted and they are not easy to do.

I don’t paint the Gold Star Portraits to glorify war. We all hate war, but at the same time we realize someone has to take on the responsibility of defending our country and keeping us safe. I paint the portraits to honor the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. They are some of the more difficult paintings I do because there is so much emotion attached to them. The Gold Star paintings are presented to the mother of a soldier who was killed while serving on active duty. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with oil paintings, but an oil painting can last a long time. We know our museums are filled with them. Photographs fade over time, but there are oil paintings that were done a thousand years ago and still look as fresh as the day they were painted. I like to think that maybe this portrait of James will survive even his own children. Perhaps a hundred years from now one of James’ great, great grandsons will have this painting hanging in his home and he will have an opportunity to tell HIS grandchildren about his great-grandfather James,-- the hero. I mean you never know what’s going to happen to the painting when it leaves your hands but I can easily imagine this scenario.

I ask the family for pictures when I am ready to start the painting and I ask for some background about the soldier, so that I can make the portrait a little personal. I like to put in some stuff that tells the viewer a little bit about the subject: What he enjoyed doing, things he loved etc.. Sometimes I get good pictures and other times not. I was lucky this time--James’s mother, Leslie, emailed me some excellent pictures and she shared some great stuff about James.

James had a lot of interests. His mom told me loved to cook and he was always trying new recipes. What he really loved was spending time with his family more than anything else. He was a huge Michigan football fan. When you live around here it seems like you love Michigan or you love Ohio State. James was in the “Go Blue” category, so I decided to incorporate a little of that love into his portrait. Leslie told me he owned a Harley Davidson motorcycle that was his ‘pride and joy’ and that he was also looking forward to inheriting his grandfather’s 1949 Harley one day. I thought I could work that in somehow too. James enjoyed life, that was obvious from the pictures his mom sent.

The very first picture I opened up in Leslie’s email cracked me up. It was a picture of James clowning around and wearing some Mickey Mouse ears on his head. That told me something about James right away. He was someone who loved to have fun. You don’t put on Mickey Mouse ears and pose for a picture if you’re worried about looking silly. Other things he loved----James was a marathon runner who ran 3 or 4 Disney Marathons and he ran the Savannah Marathon and the Marine Marathon in Washington DC too. I loved seeing the picture of James with his two boys. They are so handsome and they look so much like him. James was an animal lover too and he especially loved Great Danes. My son owns a Great Dane and I know how wonderful these dogs are. I think my favorite picture though, was the one of James in his camouflage gear and helmet, sitting down in what looks like a helicopter or some combat zone. And he is reading a magazine—and the name of the magazine is The Disney Insider Club – for MEMBERS ONLY. To me this photo is such a contradiction. Here’s a tough soldier guy in a combat zone—and what is he doing? He’s reading his Disney magazine. So I realized serous James was about his love for all things Mickey and I knew I had to find a way to incorporate that into his portrait too!

Leslie sent one picture of James and his wife, Katie, sitting in a tree together and she told me this was her favorite so I used it as the basis for my portrait. Painting a piece like this is never easy. The loved one is gone and you know that the portrait will occupy a place of honor in someone’s home. You want it to be perfect. So there is pressure here to make it GOOD! I hope my painting honors James and comforts his mom when she looks at it. If it does, it’s a successful piece.

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