Friday, March 30, 2007

Art From the Heart

Following the events of September 11, 2001, friend and fellow artist, Lisa Gleim, participated in a project in which artists painted portraits of firefighters killed on that horrific day and donated them to their families. Later, she proposed the idea of painting soldiers from Georgia who had died in service of their country in either Iraq or Afghanistan to four friends, Geraldine Zaki, Leah Henry, Fran Milner and me. Together we formed the Atlanta Fine Arts League (AFAL) in 2005 to spearhead this noble project, which we call Art From the Heart. While the AFAL has taken on a life of its own in the past year which I will discuss in another post, Art From the Heart remains our primary current objective. Approximately seventy Georgia soldiers have died thus far while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Portrait artists have been ready and willing to step up to the plate to do their part and many portraits are either complete or in the works. The paintings are being donated to the families of our fallen heroes. We will paint two in cases where there is, say, a surviving spouse and parent(s). We are having a little more difficulty finding ways to contact all of the families. If anyone reading this knows such a family, please ask them to email and tell us of their interest.
We ask the family to provide us with photos, details about their loved one, and to describe the soldier's personality to us. Since we are unable to meet the person, knowing something about him or her is helpful. Paintings are being given to the families as they are completed and, if they so choose, they will be included in a special exhibition of all these portraits to be held at the Patriots' Museum in Atlanta in the fall of 2007.
There is a great deal of emotion for the artist in painting these commemorative portraits. Talking to the family and becoming involved in their pain as well as their pride gives us just a small sampling of what they have endured and the loss they have suffered. There is also, however, a tremendous feeling of satisfaction in being able to give something that you hope will be treasured for decades to come by those who have endured such pain.
So now it is time for you to meet "my soldier," United States Marine Corporal William (Billy) G. Taylor, killed in action November 30, 2005 at the age of 26 in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. Fellow marines with whom Billy served have left messages for his family on the Fallen Heroes website, and they remember the great love Billy had for his little daughter, Leah. Billy's mother, Catherine Krattli, has told me of his Indian heritage; she is Aztec and Yaqi and his father was Cherokee. Billy joined the Marines after 9/11 feeling it his duty to protect his daughter and his country. He served for two and a half years in Washington, DC, standing guard at the funeral of Ronald Reagan when Former President George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara paid their respects. He was a member of the Marine firing squad for funerals and, as he participated in the 21 gun salute at one, he became the focus of the eye of a National Geographics camera for a special on how each branch of the military bury their dead. Billy was known for his contagious smile. His mother misses him every day.

It is now Sunday, April 1, 2007, and I am adding to this story. Yesterday I met Cathy Krattli and Leah in person for the first time. Though the painting was still wet and I couldn't give it to her, I did bring the completed portrait (finished the night before) for her and Leah to see. It was a very emotional event for me and what an amazing story I have to tell.
Cathy and Leah were in Blairsville to perform with their native American group, The Drum, at a newly opened store here selling native crafts. When I arrived, they were already performing, the men sitting and the women standing in a circle around a large drum playing and singing Indian songs. There was a chief in full native regalia who spoke, sang and danced around the group. Between songs, I met Cathy for the first time and we hugged and I spoke to beautiful five year old Leah, Billy's daughter. I told them that I had the painting with me if they would like to see it. Of course they did and I retrieved it. At the next break in their performance, Cathy and another woman in The Drum, herself a veteran, Leah and her stepfather, Mike, came over to see the painting. Cathy's response was astonishment, saying that it was Billy, that it looked just like him, and tears came to her eyes. I asked Leah if she knew who was in the painting and she answered, "Daddy." That's when I started to cry. Cathy, a Gold Star Mother, said she wanted to show the painting to the other members in the group, most of whom were veterans, and asked if I could wait for the next break in the performance. I waited, of course, and the next thing I knew the chief handed Cathy the microphone, the painting was shown to the band members and the audience, the project was explained and I was told they wanted to give me a special blessing. Cathy explained that this is done by only the women in the group and is usually reserved for other women. (Little did I know what was coming.) I had to stand in the middle of a circle formed by the ladies and the painting was placed right side up atop the drum, facing the sky. The women then beat on hand held leather drums with sticks with padded leather ends on them and sang, in beautiful melodic voices, a lovely song in a language I didn't understand. I was facing Cathy and could not help but say as she was singing that Billy had her eyes, which I knew well from painting them. She choked up a little during the song. It was a very emotional event.
Billy's step-dad, Mike, commented on Billy's mustache in the painting. "He was always working on that," he said. It is amazing how a little thing can bring back a flood of memories.
I am very thankful that now I,too, have a wonderful memory to cherish.

1 comment:

Carol said...

Art from the Heart is a wonderful group that has so much compassion for the families of our fallen soldiers....I am proud to say my sister is a part of this group! The painting of Billy is just so wonderful, it brings me to tears.
Thanks for sharing and I am interested to hear of his Mother's first moments with this painting...his young daughter will love this keepsake of her Father!