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Portraits of dead soldiers to go on public display today

WASHINGTON -- Art and fatherhood became intertwined when John R. Phelps volunteered to paint a portrait that would be included in a tribute to soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. His subject was his son.

Phelps's painting of Marine Private Clarence Phelps is among 1,327 images of soldiers in an exhibit, ''Faces of the Fallen." It opens to the public today at Arlington National Cemetery.

''It's a stunning array of pictures," Phelps said after his first view. ''They were all brave Americans."

Phelps, a professional artist in Dubois, Wyo., served four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War, loading ordnance aboard an aircraft carrier. He remains an unabashed supporter of the Iraq war though his son, who suffered head wounds April 9, was killed while helping defend a convoy in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

''We're fighting them on their own ground," he said. ''If we don't, they'd be over here."

The images of the soldiers, each 6-by-8 inches, are mounted on plain steel rods that reach to near eye level. Each rod includes a label with the soldier's name, hometown, and date of death.

Five rows are arranged chronologically by the soldiers' times of death and stretch along a half-circle inside the small museum at the entrance to the cemetery. The number of images does not represent all those killed -- that figure now is more than 1,600.

Towina Nightingale of Highland, Ind., visited the display yesterday to see the portrait of her son, Army Ranger Nathan E. Stahl. He was killed June 21 when a roadside bomb went off after he jumped from a helicopter during a rescue mission, she said.

Nightingale said she greatly admired the painting of her son by Hardy Granville Garner and hoped to meet him. The artists, who received no money for their work, have promised to give the portraits to relatives after the exhibit closes.

''I'd love to take this one home right now," she said.

Annette Polan, head of the Corcoran College of Art and Design's painting department, said she was moved to create the memorial after seeing photos of dead soldiers in a newspaper.

Polan, 60, said she wanted to show that the soldiers killed were individuals, each with hopes, dreams, and memories. She said she hopes the portraits will have the same healing affect as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. ''We wanted to make the exhibit as apolitical as possible," she said.

A portraitist herself who has painted Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Polan did nine of the collection's portraits. She assigned the others to artists she knew, either personally or through their work.

A large portion of the portraits were done conventionally, in color on canvas, but in other cases artists experimented with the images. The exhibit will be on display until Labor Day, Sept. 5.

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