Art Works Blog

100 Faces of War

In 2005, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still relatively fresh in the papers, Matt Mitchell felt compelled to somehow do his part. He had worked for years as an illustrator, but turned now to portraiture, with the idea of capturing the personal and complex experience of return. He set out to paint the portraits of 100 American men and women who had served overseas, and asked each subject to provide words to accompany their portrait. Together, these words and paintings make up the project 100 Faces of War, which will be exhibited in full for the first time tomorrow—Veterans Day—at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. The show will run through May 1, 2015.

In its entirety, the project reflects the full scope of American involvement, both emotionally through participants’ personal statements, as well as demographically. In order to ensure 100 Faces represented a true cross-section of those who served, Mitchell used statistics based on military branch, rank, gender, race, and dates and location of deployment. Of course, a true cross-section includes those who have died as a result of their service, and ten portraits in 100 Faces were painted posthumously—including Jeff Lucey, the first portrait Mitchell painted for the project.

Portrait of Donisha Lindsey

Portrait of U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class Donisha Lindsey. Photograph courtesy of Matt Mitchell

Jeffrey Michael Lucey, a lance corporal in the Marine Reserves and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was 23 when he hanged himself. This was in 2004, before Lucey’s diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder was recognized as the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Shortly after the idea for 100 Faces began to germinate, Mitchell read about Lucey’s story in the local paper, and thought, “There’s something in here that I need to understand.” So he contacted Lucey’s parents, and told them that he’d like to paint a portrait of their son. “They welcomed me. We looked at photos together, they told me stories, they opened up the story of their family, and of the complexities of Jeff's return to me,” said Mitchell. “It was not easy for them, as you can imagine.” The experience made Mitchell realize that painting these portraits would require not just a keen eye and steady hand, but an open and understanding ear.

During his studio sessions, Mitchell tried to create a “safe, low-key, unusual place to talk about whatever [his subjects] wanted to.” These conversations, Mitchell said, “became a big part of the work,” and heavily informed each painting. “The subjectivity of the experience is really important for creating this kind of warmth, and heightened sense of human touch, human interaction,” he said. “I’m painting them, but it feels like you’re working on the idea of portrayal together.”

By capturing these interpersonal moments, 100 Faces gives an intimate look into dual conflicts that can at times be difficult to fully grasp. In the 13 years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “so many things have changed,” said Mitchell. “The types of experiences people have had has changed, the technology has changed—everything. The nature of these wars is incredibly complex and epic, in a way that previous wars were not.” But by breaking down the experience to the individual, human level, Mitchell has reminded us that the sweep of history, and of war, is actualized by singular men and women, one by one, and day by day.

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