Portraits of courage, in oil and words

Artist seeks connection, understanding of wars

By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / November 29, 2009

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AMHERST - Chris McGurk is number 31.

He sits motionless in a chair, his back straight. A thin afternoon light from the north pours through the windows to his right, illuminating his shaved head and strong face. He carries on a conversation as Matthew Mitchell paints his portrait - the latest in a series on war veterans that will grow to 100 when the artist is done.

McGurk, 34, was an Army squad leader in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is all warrior, a hard-body with a no-nonsense glint in his pale blue eyes and a landscape of tattoos that cover most of his arms.

“We triggered an ambush,’’ he says, staring straight ahead as Mitchell touches up a part of his face on the canvas. He and his squad were operating near the Pakistani border in September 2003. “There were 160 of them and 11 of us.’’ McGurk pauses. “The Chechens were the best fighters. The Pakistani military fired a mortar at us on purpose.’’

Born and raised in Minnesota, Mitchell, 39, began the project out of a gnawing concern that sitting safe and happy in Amherst, he was missing an elemental understanding of what was going on abroad.

“I felt something was wrong,’’ he says. “I was ill at ease. There was no connection between me and war. What disturbed me most was the way I continued my life as if nothing whatsoever were happening. I wanted to do something about it.’’

He came up with what he admits is a “traditional idea,’’ military portraiture. His subjects face frontally, a posture reserved for the powerful and the famous.

But he insists on something more, that the process be a conversation between artist and sitter. He takes pride that veterans he has painted, most of whose politics are very different from his, have found the studio to be a place of intimacy and trust.

And he includes statements from the subjects themselves to accompany the works on oil.

“I’m trying to make the person present in the room,’’ he says.

After graduating from art school in New York, Mitchell worked for a decade as a gaming illustrator, creating monsters of all stripes for computer games like “Dungeons and Dragons.’’ He is proud of these drawings, which he shows to a visitor in his studio. He also illustrated everything from a book on alternative medicine to a children’s magazine.

Yet the current project, which he calls “100 Faces of War Experience: Portraits & Words of Americans Who Served in Iraq and Afghanistan,’’ now consumes his life.

He began in 2005 with a 26-by-30-inch portrait of late Marine Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey of Belchertown, whose post-traumatic stress from his time in Iraq led to his suicide at 23. Mitchell had approached Lucey’s parents about painting a picture to honor the Marine, and they agreed, lending him photographs of their son. “I left thinking I could do something for them,’’ he recalls.

One portrait became 30. There was no particular significance to the 100-portrait total, says Mitchell, other than it had a strong ring.

Indeed, the power of the project is in its size. The background in each portrait is a somber brown lit with a nimbus of white behind the figures. In this Mitchell says he was influenced by Rembrandt. The frontal poses he credits to the great photographer Richard Avedon, who often shot his subjects straight-on.

Many of the individual portraits are prosaic, yet together they create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Mitchell’s vision from the start has been to show an unbroken chain of former brothers in arms and offer a new way to contemplate the effects of war on the American psyche.

The plight of the veteran returning from war is timeless, says Robert Meagher, a Hampshire College professor and expert in ancient Greek drama who has provided historical context to Mitchell on the project.

“The Odysseus who returns from Troy is broken,’’ says Meagher. “Heracles comes home and murders his own family. Heracles is full of shame, guilt, and despair,’’ Meagher continues. “A fellow veteran helps him in his recovery. That’s how veterans are able to make it through the rest of their lives. They rely on one another.’’

Mitchell is also trying to present as diverse a group of subjects as he can. With McGurk, there are now 27 men and four women, one of whom is a civilian, from all four branches of the military, including four African-Americans, four Latinos, one Asian, and one mixed race/Native American, from 17 states.

The most famous portrait so far is hanging until next summer in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. It is number 23, a rendering of retired Army Sergeant Richard Yarosh that was a finalist in a portrait competition there.

Yarosh, 27, was severely burned over 60 percent of his body from an explosion in Iraq on Sept. 1, 2006. His face is unrecognizable from the one he had for the first 24 years of his life. He has undergone more than 35 operations. Yet he didn’t hesitate when asked to sit for Mitchell. “Five seconds and I said yes,’’ he recalled by phone from his home in Windsor, N.Y. “I’m not afraid of what I look like, to put my picture out there.’’

He adds: “I didn’t know what the finished product was going to be like. Matt captured the pride I have. I’m not angry and spiteful, I’m proud and happy.’’

Mitchell scours veterans organizations and volunteer groups, and he relies on word of mouth to locate veterans to paint. He found Yarosh at a medical center in San Antonio.

“Faces’’ has been exhibited at about 20 small sites, largely in New England. The pieces are not for sale, and there is no way to see the work in total other than in his small studio, or digitally at Mitchell has five on a wall and the rest stored there. He hopes all the pieces will eventually be seen somewhere within the US Capitol complex.

“I am happy to do this because it’s something useful,’’ he says. “I’ve helped bridge a big gulf between the general public and those people carrying out American foreign policy abroad.’’

Yet Mitchell estimates it will take three more years to finish; the project has all but bankrupted him. Three foundations and a few private donors helped at the beginning, but that money ran out. He and his wife, Rebecca, then took out an equity loan on their house in Amherst and eventually went through that, too. He figures to need another $200,000. In the meantime, he has painted portraits of people and pets for money to get by, and he has sold some of his illustrations on eBay.

Usually Mitchell has two sittings with a subject and has to finish the work from memory, or with the aid of photographs. Not so with McGurk, who is here for the last of three lengthy sittings.

Before they began, McGurk provided the 250-word statement that would go with his portrait. These can be about anything - letters home, contemplative assessments of their military experience, wartime memories.

McGurk’s packs a wallop:

“The taste of raw sewage and dust fills my mouth and the sounds of gunfire, children playing, and explosions echo like a dull headache inside my head . . . I would have to say a part of my soul was left in Iraq and I know that I will never be able to get it back.’’

Mitchell paints as the conversation between artist and subject trails off. McGurk is silent now. There’s a stillness in the room. Portrait 31 is almost done.

Sam Allis can be reached at