As the death toll for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan nears the 1,000 mark, an Encinitas artist explains how she honored another 1,000 soldiers felled three years ago during the war in Iraq.
Over the next few months up to 4,000 Marines at Southern California’s Camp Pendleton will be deployed to Afghanistan. Some will leave before Christmas.
In the nearby town of Oceanside, a strange calm prevails. A uniformed soldier walks somberly into a law office. Another, the sole customer in an old-style barber shop, gets his already-short hair trimmed. Across the street, another young serviceman picks up his dry cleaning. Signs in motorcycle shops offer deep military discounts. Old Glory flaps listlessly over a the entrance of a pool hall.
What lies ahead for the Marines? Will friends or foes be waiting for them behind the sun-baked walls of Afghanistan villages?
As more soldiers head off to this eight year-long conflict, a gruesome statistic looms on the horizon: the 1,000th U.S. soldier will soon die fighting in Afghanistan. When that death comes, how will we will honor those who have already lost their lives? Three years ago, an Encinitas artist asked herself this question under similar circumstances. Her response was to draw their portraits. Little did she know that her tribute would consume her for the next seven months.
On New Year’s Day, 2007, artist Marilyn Mitchell was leafing through the New York Times when she stumbled across a photo montage that hit her like a brick: three and a half full pages of photographs of 1,000 service men and women who died in Iraq. The photographs represented the third set of 1,000 photos that the Times had published since the Iraq war began – the highest U.S. military death toll since the Viet Nam War.
The visual impact of so many lost lives overwhelmed her. “Many of them were so young -the age of my 22-year-old son, some even younger,” she said. “I just had to draw them. I wanted to honor them and remind people that these were once-vibrant human beings.”
She set out drawing the miniature portraits with care. Working in India ink required a delicate but sure touch; one blotch and a portrait would be ruined. Scouring the photos, she searched for something unique in each soldier’s character.
“Many of the photos were lent to the New York Times by family members. My piece was a gift to the soldiers as well as their families,” Mitchell said. “ I wanted to try to breathe life into each portrait.”
The effort left her emotionally drained. “I must admit that towards the end I was ready to finish. It was a painful process, staring at those faces every day. I was more successful with some portraits than others. But I cared deeply about each one.” Mitchell says she likes to see the artists’ hand, their personality, in their work.
The finished pages were hand-stitched together with thread. Perhaps the stitches were a tribute to her mother who could work magic with a needle. Perhaps it was a nod to her training as a nurse: the sutures on the page may have been a symbolic effort to try to stitch the fallen soldiers back to life.
To finish the piece, she surrounded the pages with a halo of bridal netting, pearls and silver wire. “It was another way to pay tribute,” she said. “My inspiration came from the Romans who put a gold crown of laurels around a person’s head to honor them.”
Her piece, entitled “Prayer for 1,000 Dead Soldiers”, was shown at a juried exhibit at the Oceanside Museum of Art. Later it was shown at the J.C. Gallery in downtown Oceanside, in an exhibit entitled, “God and Country”.
At the bottom of Prayer for 1,000 Dead Soldiers, Mitchell, an anti-war activist, added a poem she wrote about the photos of soldiers she had studied so carefully for seven long months. Was it the nurse, mother or the artist in Mitchell which caused her to write:
“I imagine being their mother…Each one is beautiful to me. I am sorry that I am not better. That I can not draw them back to life.”
The following is an excerpt from Marilyn Mitchell’s Web site on her “Prayer for 1,000 Dead Soldiers”
“An essential part of my process is to take a date that is personally important to me and find a publication from that date to make an artwork. This piece was created to mark the birthday of my dearest friend in San Diego, Barb Goldsand. By coincidence the New York Times published the photos of the last 1000 soldiers killed in Iraq on that day, January 1, 2007. I decided to draw each one in order to honor them and to give my attention and my prayers to each soldier that had died.”
I draw these soldiers,
so many men gone.
I imagine being their love,
remembering their gaze.
I imagine being their mother,
losing her very heart
and going on with a fathomless
I imagine being their father
whose loss is unspeakable.
Each one is beautiful to me.
I am sorry I am not better.
That I cannot draw them
back to life.
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