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Beverly Beckham

Artist with a mission: Face by face, to honor their lives

Gina Johnson, with portraits she has drawn. For the past three years, she’s focused on New Englanders who have fallen in war. Gina Johnson, with portraits she has drawn. For the past three years, she’s focused on New Englanders who have fallen in war. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Beverly Beckham
Globe Columnist / November 14, 2010

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She knows their stories. She points to their pictures and tells you that he was from Burlington and she was from Quincy. That he was on his fourth tour of duty when he was killed and that he died in a car crash a few months after he came home from Iraq.

She drew all their faces. She copied them from photos that were in newspapers or were given to her by their relatives. She drew them on 8x10 white card stock, then gave them to a mother, a father, a child, a wife.

Gina Johnson is 53. She lives in Woburn and has two grown children. She works as an office manager, but her passion is drawing pictures that heal hearts.

She says she has always drawn, “since I was old enough to hold a pencil.” She’s drawn for family, friends, schools, charities, for Children’s Hospital Boston, creating portraits and collages.

For the past three years, she’s used her art to honor deceased New England men and women who served in the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, to make their deaths meaningful to those who didn’t know them and to bring comfort to those who did.

A picture says I was here. I lived. I loved. I had dreams. I was just like you. A picture is a time traveler.

Gina Johnson has drawn 139 pictures of these young people.

“My passion is to celebrate their lives,” she says. She gives her finished portraits to Rosemarie Annese, who is first vice-president of Blue Star Mothers and liaison for the Blue to Gold program, which offers comfort to families of deceased servicemen. Annese hand-delivers the portraits to families.

Johnson also takes photocopies of her pictures to events. She has two donated wall boards that she squeezes into her 2003 Dodge Caravan whenever anyone asks. “I take the seats out and I fit everything in,” she says. She travels the state to services and remembrances where families gather.

It takes her a half-hour to draw a portrait. She starts with the eyes. She draws soldiers in uniform, in street clothes, wearing shirts with ties, some smiling, some serious. Sometimes she adds in a soldier’s family. Behind one young woman in uniform, she drew her again with her hair down.

For Johnson, one problem has been getting the word out. Getting families to send her their photos.

So on Monday nights for the past three years, Johnson has been taking her pencil and paper to The Restaurant in Woburn Center so people can find her.

Fred Shine was at the restaurant last week. A Vietnam vet, he lost six friends in that war. Last month, Johnson drew them all. He gave her his faded photographs. She gave him back his youth.

Shine, who grew up in Wilmington, has worked to keep the memory of his friends alive since he came back from his second tour of duty 40 years ago. He raised the money for the memorials in his town. He’s visited schools and given talks for years.

Two weeks ago, he took along the pictures that Johnson drew. And the students looked at them and saw that these soldiers who died were just boys.

“They were so young,” the kids kept saying.

“They got it,” Shine said. “They understood.”

Johnson’s mission includes Vietnam veterans now. She’s determined to honor all the men and women from Massachusetts who died.

She says the media come knocking right after someone is killed, at a time when the family is in shock and sad and reluctant to speak. But later they want to talk. Later they want their loved one remembered.

Johnson’s mission is all about remembering.

She dreams about having all soldiers memorialized, not just local ones.

She dreams about having pictures to go along with names at the Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

She dreams about building a website with a family’s words and her pictures so that schoolchildren can touch a screen and learn about each soldier’s life. She says she has the domain, operationhometies.com, but not the ability to create it.

In the meantime, she’s planning to exhibit her portraits at The Massachusetts Fallen Heroes Memorial Dinner on Dec. 2 at the Boston Convention Center. She does it all for free. The art. The presentations. The advocating.

She says that what she does is not unusual. It’s what her mother taught her. “People are always extending their hand. Mine just happens to have a No. 2 pencil in it.”

Gina Johnson can be reached at operationhometies@gmail.com. Beverly Beckham can be reached at bevbeckham@aol.com.