By Margaret Talev
March 28, 2005
"There he is," Liz Harrigan, a nurse from Woodbury, Minn., tells her two boys on the day they visit, pointing up at the clay relief of Marine Cpl. Tyler Fey, who died a year ago, at age 22, under hostile fire in Iraq. Harrigan and Fey's mother had been schoolmates and, for a time, co-workers. Harrigan once dressed her older son, now 15, in Fey's hand-me-downs. Tears spill down Harrigan's cheeks as she remembers. She snaps wobbly photographs of the soldier's likeness to send with a note to her old friend. "I've thought of her so many times," she says.
Gestures of intimacy between strangers here are at once clumsy and tender.
Sheila Cobb, of Bradenton, Fla., is a sad-faced, overweight woman who carries a photograph of a lighter, happier version of herself with her only child, Christopher, shortly before he was killed at war last spring. She wanders away from her son's panel, a photo collage, drawn by the sight several yards away of another mother.
Velina Sanchez of Roswell, N.M., has been standing fixed for a good half-hour in front of the sepia-tone portrait of her late son, Marine Sgt. Moses D. Rocha. Cobb gently admires the pastel baseball jacket Sanchez is wearing, with its ironed-on photograph and poem in remembrance of her son.
"That's beautiful," she says, and Sanchez's hard face softens.
"Tuesday was his birthday," Sanchez says, still staring ahead. "He would have been 34."
A stoic young veteran walks past, nimble with a prosthetic leg, a woman at his side. He declines an interview but says he's there to find the portraits of soldiers he knew. "I have a few friends here," he says.
This is the scene two days after the exhibit opened inside the Women In Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va., in a long and narrow, high-ceilinged, glass, steel and marble space. The exhibit is comprised of row upon row of 6-by-8 inch panels, one for each of 1,327 men and women who died in service to the United States between October 2001 and last Nov. 11, Veterans Day. Some portraits are traditional, in oil, acrylic, watercolor or sketch pencil. Others are abstract, or sculptured from clay or wood, or are graphic designs or collages. Silhouettes in blue represent soldiers whose photographs organizers had not obtained in time for the exhibit.
Only fallen soldiers are remembered in this display, not private contractors involved in the rebuilding mission in Iraq or clandestine operatives, to the dismay of a widowed artist, who one organizer said contacted her in the hopes of painting her late husband who she said died in Afghanistan while working undercover for the CIA.
Annette Polan, a Washington, D.C., portrait painter and an associate professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, conceived the exhibit. Polan said she got the idea last spring, after seeing rows and rows of photographs of fallen soldiers in a spread inside the Washington Post. The effect of all those faces staring back at her was moving, but the medium seemed fleeting.
Polan said her thought was, "These people deserve more than lining someone's kitty litter. This is not going away. This is real and permanent and these people should not be forgotten."
Polan tapped about 200 artists to work on the exhibit, some professionals and some students. As word spread, artists approached her as well. A Wyoming artist, John Phelps, painted the portrait of his own son, a 19-year-old Marine killed in Iraq.
Opening day was reserved for family members, and nearly 2,000 people came. Some, including Sanchez and Cobb, stayed the week, visiting again and again.
"It's only been open three days and I've been here three days," says April Stein Brittain, a classical violist from Virginia whose brother died in Afghanistan. "I think I want to continue to drink it in. I see things I didn't see before. I see individual life in each one of these portraits."