Iraq veteran Rick Yarosh and portraitist Matthew Mitchell

By Jacqueline Trescott
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sgt. Rick Yarosh is standing in the National Portrait Gallery. There on the wall is a painting. Of him.

"When I think Smithsonian, I think George Washington, not Rick Yarosh," he says.

Still, there he is. Does he see disfigurement? No.

"I see pride. I see someone who has overcome something, and I can tell [people] they can get through something," Yarosh says.

In September 2006, Yarosh, an Army cavalry scout, was on patrol in Iraq when his vehicle was hit by a makeshift bomb. Most of his body was immediately engulfed in flames, and the young soldier was forced to escape through the top hatch of the Bradley tank. Yarosh was burned over 60 percent of his body, his face shredded; his right leg had to be amputated below the knee.

A few months before Yarosh's horrific accident, Matthew Mitchell was at home in Amherst, Mass. He was thinking about how his art could capture the experience of the ongoing war. And then he got an idea: He would start a project called the "100 Faces of War Experience." Right there and then, without any funding, Mitchell decided to bring to life the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through portraits, settling on a humanist, apolitical approach.

It was in 2008 that Mitchell met Yarosh at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, a crossroads that a year later brought them both to a most unlikely place -- the National Portrait Gallery. Yarosh sat for Mitchell, the soldier's face and arms burned so deeply that they had a rose tone, almost like a cranberry candle. Yarosh and Mitchell decided they had to show it all.

The Yarosh painting was eventually selected for the museum's current exhibition on contemporary portraits, which includes the 49 finalists of a national portrait contest. Mitchell's work was not one of the competition's eventual winners, but guests at a recent unveiling of the works couldn't stop marveling at the frankness of the canvas.

Both men are surprised and pleased that their collaboration is getting national attention. "It is a validation of where I am as a painter," says Mitchell. Yarosh counters that Mitchell "hit it on the head. That is me on that canvas. He captured . . . someone who is proud, someone who proudly served the nation and isn't done with what he has got planned. It's someone who sees opportunity ahead of him."

Yarosh, 27, grew up in Windsor, N.Y., an hour north of Scranton, Pa., and worked as a cook for four years after high school. He was reading the newspaper on Easter Sunday in 2004 when he came across a picture of a man he had met, a casualty of the Iraq war. "Seeing that picture was the driving force for why I joined the Army," Yarosh says. He planned to spend four years in the service and then become a police officer, now no longer possible.

Two years later, the bomb on that Baghdad road changed his life. "I have had close to 40 surgeries altogether," Yarosh says later by phone. He's very candid about the accident, talks about how lucky he is to be injured at a time that medicine can do so much for burn victims. He even has Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" as one of his voice-mail songs.

Mitchell, 39, grew up in the Twin Cities, and the attraction to drawing started early. Because his father was a research physicist and his mother an artist, he chose to study biomedical illustration at Iowa State, but it wasn't the right fit. In 1993 he finished at Pratt Institute with a degree in sculpture. He migrated to illustration, and eventually gaming and the fantasy genre.

In his studio, he listened to the U-Mass. radio station for its music but paid little attention to the news about Iraq and Afghanistan. "Two years into the war I realized the war hadn't affected my life," says Mitchell. He began considering a project that wouldn't make the war so "abstract."

At their first meeting, the pair talked about Yarosh's accident, the years of therapy. And then Mitchell began to paint: two sessions of two to three hours, over two days. "I was taken by the color of Rick, the coloration of his skin, because it was so scarred. These are colors that are unconventional for a complexion and I was trying to capture the reality," he says. Working directly on the canvas, he drew Yarosh's face. Later he did the upper body, and the shirt that boldly states "Army." Yarosh grew to admire Mitchell. "I know artists learn how to do noses and ears, and he had to go outside that," Yarosh says.

Of his 30 completed portraits so far, Mitchell says, the Yarosh has been the most magical. Yarosh's eyes signal a determination, a purpose, behind a scarred mask."He is Mr. Positive," Mitchell says, "but the struggle comes across in his face."

The soldier's injury has brought its share of speaking engagements, and Yarosh says he enjoys going to childrens' burn camps. Because of the burns on his hands, he's abandoned his hopes of being a line chef, but he dreams of managing a restaurant, one he plans to call the Purple Heart. "I consider myself to have a gift. God blessed me with a voice and if I didn't use it, I would consider it an injustice," he says.

The portrait is another kind of gift.

"It is an honor to be there," Yarosh says. "Just to have my name and my face hanging in the Smithsonian for a year. You walk through to the other side, and there are the presidents."

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