An Admirable Art Project / by Jeannine Cook

On Morning Edition this morning, I heard of a really wonderful art project. Artist Matthew Mitchell, whose studio is in Amherst, Mass, is painting One Hundred Faces of War. Apparently one third of the way through the project, he is doing portraits of men and women who have served in the military in recent times, from very different ranks and varied walks of civilian life. He reflects the faces of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, people who have chosen to journey forth from America to these distant lands. Accompanying the very accomplished portraits, some posthumous, are statements written by the people themselves or by their survivors.

This project struck me as brilliant, not only because it is a wonderful way to make one's way professionally as an artist, with all the attendant publicity and exhibitions, but also because it seems a very necessary and important thing to do for society in general. As artist Mitchell remarked himself in the NPR interview, he did not know people in the military when he started out on this project. This is very frequently the case, I suspect. Certainly I do not know many people who have served in recent conflicts. In countries such as the US, where conscription has been abolished, the general awareness, on a personal level, of matters military is far more limited.

Nonetheless, America has a large number of very dedicated and admirable citizens who have served or are now serving; Iraq and Afghanistan are both terrible crucibles for these volunteers. I frequently have the uncomfortable feeling that their sacrifices are not always recognised sufficiently. Thus the Hundred Faces of War project is a wonderful way to convey to a wider public just what being a soldier means to men and women today. The portraits shown on Mr. Mitchell's website are eloquent and moving, made even more meaningful by the accompanying written statements.

For artists, finding such projects is important but not always easy. Each of us has passions and concerns, and when the stars align to allow a project that combines our passion and our artistic skills, the results are usually powerful. The ventures are as diverse as are the artists involved - from a personal odyssey depicted in a series to plein air work done to raise awareness of an area's importance or an abstract exploration of feelings or memories... Each time one dreams up a project to execute, there is a thrill of excitement, often apprehension (as Matthew Mitchell also recognised in his NPR interview) about being able to tackle the task, but then a certain impetus and logic of the project itself seem to take over. One just goes about trying to execute it to the best of one's ability. Depending on the size and ambition of the project, it can become life-consuming. There is, nonetheless, an almost certain personal enrichment involved too. I have found that fascinations, insights, diverse joys and fresh knowledge come from each such venture - unexpected bonuses that remain with one. They often lead to the next project too, just as research for a book yields additional avenues later to be explored for other books.

I found the NPR story about Matthew Mitchell to be inspiring and reassuring - a timely reminder to be thinking of my next artwork series. I wonder if anyone else felt the same thing after hearing about him?