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Portraits Etched in Grief

'Faces of the Fallen' Gives a Long, Last Look at The War Dead

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page C01

Painted portraits seem not only archaic but also impractical compared with photographs, which are taken in an instant and never drip. A portrait takes devotion, which is why painting a person can be an intimate process, even if you've never met your subject, even if the person died before you ever heard his name.

In the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, at the gateway of Arlington National Cemetery, an exhibition opened yesterday that consists of rows and rows of portraits of U.S. military men and women who've died in the country's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The more than 1,300 "Faces of the Fallen" portraits are rendered in oil, glass, cloth and clay by more than 200 artists, almost none of whom knew their subjects in life. Yesterday, 1,500 family members gathered to see these strangers' tributes of their loved ones.

More than 1,300 portraits of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are installed at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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"It's almost more lifelike seeing the painting than the picture," says Chris Sapp, 24, looking at a portrait of his brother, Pfc. Brandon R. Sapp, who died at age 21 on Aug. 15.

It was a day of comfort, a day for collective mourning, even if it did make for unlikely allies -- artists, well-pressed military, teary-eyed families. Politics roiled beneath the surface, symbolic of a nation still divided by the Iraq war, launched two years ago this week. During a media briefing yesterday, one artist involved in the project expressed opposition to the war, even as he said he thought it necessary to honor those who'd sacrificed their lives.

Other artists had questioned the presence of Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who delivered the keynote address.

Myers thanked the families for their sacrifices and more than once invoked the war on terror. "We won't fail," he told the gathering, which also drew Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).

But the organizers tried to keep the day as "apolitical" as possible, said co-chair Anne G. Murphy, to focus on their primary motivation: comforting the families of the fallen.

And indeed, as families from more than 40 states arrived throughout the day, they looked for their own, and then the women leaned into their husbands' chests and stared.

It can be a strange thing to see another person's interpretation of someone you know so well.

"First, it didn't kinda look like him," says David Owens, as he stares at a slightly blurry portrait of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. David E. Owens Jr. He confers with his wife, Debbie, who wears a picture of their only child around her neck. They think maybe the hair color is off. David had just graduated from high school when he went into the military in 2000, they say. He was 20 when he died in April 2003.

"On patrol in Baghdad," the father says, and looks away.

In some cases, artists didn't even try for verisimilitude but instead painted rather abstract portraits. Some are figures in blown glass and others are merely pictures of flowers with names. There are portraits that look like pencil on wood; there are sculptures; there are metal cutouts; and there is an odd series of paintings of young men wearing what appear to be flowered hats.

Organizers say one family member contacted them, after seeing a portrait on the Web, to say she wasn't sure she liked the rendition of her loved one. They told her they'd revisit the issue after she'd seen it in person.

The exhibition, which will remain at the Women's Memorial through Veterans Day this November, was organized by Annette Polan, a local artist, and her friends and colleagues. It includes all the U.S. military who have died in combat from October 2001 through November 2004. Organizers say the event cost approximately $130,000, plus contributions of labor and materials from volunteers. If they can raise more money, the organizers say they would like to keep painting into the present and to take the exhibition around the country.

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