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Portraits Etched in Grief

Polan, a professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, has painted official portraits of O'Connor and a former governor of West Virginia, among others. The idea for Faces of the Fallen came to her during a depression after her mother's death in January 2004. In the spring, she opened The Washington Post to find row after row of photographs of dead soldiers. It was titled "Faces of the Fallen."

"I said, 'This looks like a portrait gallery,' " Polan said in an interview Monday. The portraits Polan had painted of her parents in life gave her great comfort after they both died, and she began to think of painting the many faces of these strangers.

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)

_____Faces of the Fallen_____
Photo Gallery: Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery displays paintings of fallen soldiers.

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"A portrait is really a way of reaching out to the future, to say this person was here, he mattered, someone cared about him," Polan said.

She canvassed students and former students, friends and friends of friends, to find out who would paint. People were eager. She got in touch with Murphy, a well-connected arts enthusiast, and they began to locate funding through companies, organizations and individuals. Polan wrote the soldiers' families to tell them about her project. And she painted nine portraits, all of people who died in March 2003.

The work can make a stranger seem like a friend, Polan and other artists say. Painting the dead can be rather like mourning. Over days, the artist imagines a young soldier's life, imagines kindness or arrogance in his cheekbones or an arched eyebrow.

Polan painted a young man, Marine 2nd Lt. Therrel S. Childers, who, she discovered, was born just a few miles from her birthplace in West Virginia. In a photograph that appears to be from his adolescence, his soft, innocent mouth reminds her of a certain Velasquez portrait of a prince. In a more recent photo, which Polan used to paint the portrait now on display, Childers's jaw is squared off, and his mouth has lost some of that softness. "He's tasted life," Polan says.

He died at 30.

She painted an only child named Brandon S. Tobler. At 19, he was the youngest; Polan calls the Army specialist "my baby."

She painted Navy Lt. Thomas M. Adams, 27, who looked an awful lot like her son.

"He was the last one I painted," Polan said. "I just couldn't bear to do it."

Yesterday during the opening, Brian Hart, of Bedford, Mass., approached the organizer.

"Annette?" Hart asked.

"Thank you," he said, hugging her.

"The faces of these boys are just disappearing," said the father who lost his son, Army Pfc. John D. Hart, in Taza, Iraq, on Oct. 18, 2003.

But alongside such moments yesterday was the political strife that surrounds the war in Iraq. News that Myers would be speaking sparked a small flurry of protest in recent weeks, and prompted one artist to write a letter that he says he planned to send Myers, signed by eight fellow exhibition artists, that calls the war a "mistake."

Polan stressed that Myers's presence was symbolically important for the families. As for the families themselves, they seemed most focused on the sea of faces rendered in every color imaginable.

"There's sooo many of them," says Delain Johnson of Sturgis, S.D., who had come to see the face of her son, Army Capt. Christopher F. Soelzer. "It just really drives it home."

Johnson looks at the painting of her son, who died at 26. He is round-cheeked and wearing a mustache. She looks around, sees the portraits of two other young men who were riding in the same Humvee. They were on the road to Samarra, she says, going back to camp. It was the 24th of December, 2003. There was a bomb in a guardrail. A tear slides down one cheek.

She wipes her face, smiles and says she's doing better.

"There's something about that year mark," she says.

"The firsts are over," says her husband, Soelzer's stepfather, Alan Johnson. "First Thanksgiving, birthday, Christmas."

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