“Proudly She Served”–Their Tragedies and Triumphs Taught Me What True Courage Is
Artists are a peculiar lot. We are storytellers. We are tightrope walkers. Afraid and not afraid to fail. Bold enough to take on projects on a moment’s whim not knowing the full territory. The artist’s roadmap is based on instinct, not necessarily logic. Passion is the fuel in the engine. That’s it.
Years ago, a U.S. Army veteran told me people like me, who never served in uniform and find themselves getting involved in the support and honor of men and women associated with the U.S. armed forces, are called “fellow travelers.”
I teach a workshop for veterans at Fordham University—now all virtual, of course—open to all veterans who paint and want to paint. The workshop is based on the notion that all artists make art to learn the truth about themselves. This is certainly true for me taking on a series of 12 large portraits of women veterans.
After meeting Army veteran Dawn Halfaker, I realized women veterans are an underheralded group; what an understatement that is. It took three and a half years to complete the 12 portraits, but that is not the real story. The real story is the time spent meeting and getting to know these extraordinary individuals. That has been the gift to me that I more than willingly worked for.
It began with an introduction to Dawn, a U.S. Military Academy grad who had deployed to Iraq. There, a rocket-propelled grenade shredded her right arm at the shoulder. Dawn had been an exceptional basketball player recruited to West Point and served as a captain of a military police unit in Baquba, Iraq.
A mutual friend introduced us, saying that something good would come out of it. So Dawn and I met for lunch. The name “Halfaker” rang a bell, and I learned James Gandolfini had interviewed Dawn for a documentary he produced in 2007 called Alive Day Memories. I rewatched Dawn’s interview, which was very powerful.
So, I had an idea of who Dawn was. I waited in the lobby of the restaurant.
Initially, I was struck by Dawn’s outward beauty. Kind of electric, actually. During lunch, I was impressed by her candor, brilliance, sensitivity, and sense of humor. At the time, Dawn was building her business, which she has since sold and sold well. She had two sons.
We seemed to have a lot to talk about.
“Would you allow me to paint your portrait?” I blurted out.
I looked around to see who actually said it. I was not a portrait artist at all at the time, but Dawn’s story so compelled me. Once I asked, and once she said yes, there was no turning back on the challenge to tell her story in oil paint.
At the time, I was immersed in another series, but many months later Dawn and I met for another lunch.
“Let me take a few shots here,” I said as we were getting up to leave. Took six snaps and the fifth became the painting.
I struggled mightily with Dawn’s portrait for three months, really struggled, all the while feeling incredibly responsible to Dawn to present a finished portrait that would do her proud—out of my deep respect for who Dawn is and what she is about.
When I completed it, I realized this was something I was capable of doing. What I am after in paint is to capture a person’s strength and vulnerability all at the same time.
I want to see their personal history in their eyes. How is this done? I don’t know, other than that I willingly experience the pain of attempting to create a portrait until, as a fellow artist said to me once, “I have them in my hand.” This is the agony and the ecstasy. You do have to suffer for your art. It’s part of the process.
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Along the way, I joined forces with former naval aviator and extraordinary women veterans supporter, Linda Maloney. Together, we crafted the stories of both celebrity veterans and everyday heroes most people would not know in a series of 12 large portraits called “Proudly She Served.” We would display the portraits and stories in exhibitions in museums across the United States. We recently received our first museum booking, in Gilbert, Arizona, in May 2023.
The Proudly She Served series brought me close to women who serve or have served in uniform, all of whom faced enormous mental and physical challenges they were called to meet head-on with determination, grit, and exceptional courage. They all strove to mitigate the sometimes thick climate of discrimination and harassment and go beyond the obstacles placed in front of them in their daily duty and in combat.
I was fortunate to get to know these women: all of them forthright, and people of grace and steely resolve, every single one of them, all in their own unique way. To tell their stories in oil paint will always be an incredible honor.
Most of the portraits went well, but not all. There were dips and valleys in the process before I could say I had the painted image in hand. A year and half after I thought I had completed my portrait of Sen. Tammy Duckworth, I changed it completely. I owed it to her to get it right, the least I could do after what she went through and the fine service she still gives as a U. S. senator.
Then there were other paintings, like the portrait of Nicole Malachowski, the celebrated first woman F-16 pilot to serve as squadron commander as well as fly with the vaunted Thunderbirds. Nicole’s portrait happened quickly in its simplicity and design, effortlessly coming off the brush like I was barely there.
The final painting of the series was the great Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, a WASP pilot in WWII. Bee had turned 100 as I began her portrait. Halfway through the painting, Bee passed away. It happened as Bee’s image was coming into being on the canvas on the easel. A week or so after Bee passed—and this is a little crazy—but yes, I felt Bee hovering around the studio for a few days. I felt her presence around and over me.
And then she left.
I know this sounds totally nutty; I’m just reporting here. After Bee “left,” I added a small aircraft above her shoulder as if this were Bee heading to her next destination. I sent a photo of the completed painting to Bee’s daughter, Diana. Diana had no idea that I had this extraordinary experience with her mom in my studio, but wrote me an email saying she was happy I got to spend time with her mom. My favorite comment about Bee’s portrait came from Malachowski, who was a friend and admirer of Bee.
“Bee looks like she knows something we don’t,” she wrote.
The self-confidence all of these 12 exceptional women possess has rubbed off on me. Having gotten to know all of them, hearing and reading their stories, and then telling their stories in oil paint has made me stand a little taller and given me confidence to take on even more challenging projects.
When I get down for any reason, all I have to do is think of any one of these remarkable individuals and remind myself of what they all faced and then accomplished. I think of who they became as a result of their intense desire to serve. I am indeed blessed to have traveled with them for a brief time. Many will remain lifelong friends. All the portrait women veterans and I shared a brief time together in this life where our orbits caught up and traveled together to create art. What can be more life-affirming and joyful than that?
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As I said, we artists are a peculiar lot. We scan the landscape of our own lives to identify the compelling stories to bring into the world. This is my calling, my service as a fellow traveler. The “Proudly She Served” women carry such positive energy. Their tragedies and triumphs have taught me about what true courage is all about.