Female Military Veterans Featured in “Proudly She Served” Art
Artists are a special lot. We are storytellers. We are tightrope walkers. Fear and not fear of failing. Daring enough to undertake projects on a whim without knowing the whole territory. The artist’s track record is based on instinct, not necessarily logic. Passion is the fuel of the engine. That’s it.
Years ago, a United States Army veteran told me that people like me, who have never served in uniform and find themselves involved in supporting and honoring the men and women associated with United States Armed Forces, are referred to as “traveling companions”.
I teach a veterans workshop at Fordham University – now fully 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. It is certainly the case for me to undertake a series of 12 large portraits of female veterans.
After meeting Army veteran Dawn Halfaker, I realized that female veterans are an underrated group; what an understatement that is. It took three and a half years to complete the 12 portraits, but that’s not the real story. The real story is the time spent meeting and getting to know these extraordinary people. This has been for me the gift for which I have more than willingly worked.
It started with a presentation from Dawn, a graduate of the US Military Academy who had deployed to Iraq. There, a rocket-propelled grenade shredded his right arm at shoulder level. Dawn had been an exceptional basketball player recruited from West Point and served as captain of a military police unit in Baquba, Iraq.
A mutual friend introduced us saying something good would come of it. So Dawn and I met for lunch. The name “Halfaker” struck me, and I learned that James Gandolfini had interviewed Dawn for a documentary he produced in 2007 titled Memories of a living day. I rewatched Dawn’s interview, which was very powerful.
So, I had an idea who Dawn was. I waited in the restaurant lobby.
Initially, I was struck by Dawn’s outward beauty. A little electric, in fact. During lunch, I was impressed by his frankness, his brilliance, his sensitivity and his 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.
“Will you allow me to paint your portrait?” I blurted out.
I looked around to see who really said it. I wasn’t a portrait artist at all at the time, but Dawn’s story captivated me so much. Once I asked, and once she said yes, there was no going back from the challenge of telling her story in oil paint.
I was immersed in another series at the time, but several months later Dawn and I met for another lunch.
“Let me take some shots here,” I said as we got up to leave. Took six snaps and the fifth became the painting.
I struggled a lot with the portrait of Dawn for three months, really struggled, while feeling incredibly responsible to Dawn to present a finished portrait that would make her proud – out of respect for who Dawn is and what she is.
When I finished it, I realized it was something I was capable of. What I look for in painting is to capture a person’s strength and vulnerability at the same time.
I want to see their personal story in their eyes. How is it done? I don’t know, other than that, I gladly feel the pain of trying to create a portrait until, as a fellow artist once told me, “I have them in my hand.” It is agony and ecstasy. You must 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 female veteran supporter, Linda Maloney. Together we’ve crafted the stories of famous veterans and everyday heroes most people wouldn’t know in a series of 12 large portraits titled “Proudly She Served”. We displayed the portraits and stories in exhibits at museums across the United States. We recently received our first museum reservation, in Gilbert, Arizona, in May 2023.
The Proudly She Served series brought me closer to women who serve or have served in uniform, all of whom have faced tremendous mental and physical challenges that they were called upon to overcome with determination, courage and exceptional courage. All endeavored to alleviate the sometimes thick climate of discrimination and harassment and to overcome the obstacles that stood before them in their daily duty and in combat.
I was lucky enough to get to know these women: all direct, and people of grace and unwavering determination, each one of them, all in their own way. Telling their stories in oil paint will always be an incredible honor.
Most portraits went well, but not all. There were dips and valleys in the process before I could say I had the picture painted in my hand. A year and a half after I thought I had finished my portrait of Senator Tammy Duckworth, I completely changed it. I owed her to get it right, the least I could do after what she’s been through and the good service she still does as a US Senator.
Then there were other paintings, like the portrait of Nicole Malachowski, the famous first female F-16 pilot to serve as a squadron commander and fly with the famous Thunderbirds. Nicole’s portrait came quickly in its simplicity and design, effortlessly emerging from the brush as if I was barely there.
The last painting in the series was the great Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, a WASP pilot during World War II. Bee had been 100 years old when I started his portrait. Halfway through the painting, Bee died. It happened while Bee’s image was taking shape on the canvas of the easel. About a week after Bee died – and it’s kinda crazy – but yeah, I felt Bee hovering in the studio for a few days. I felt his presence around me and above me.
And then she left.
I know that sounds totally crazy; I’m just reporting here. After Bee “left”, I added a small plane over his shoulder as if it was Bee heading to his next destination. I sent a photo of the finished painting to Bee’s daughter, Diana. Diana had no idea that I had had this amazing experience with her mother in my studio, but she wrote me an email saying she was happy that I could spend time with her mother. My favorite comment on Bee’s portrayal came from Malachowski, who was a friend and admirer of Bee.
“Bee seems to know something we don’t,” she wrote.
The self-confidence that all of these 12 exceptional women possess has rubbed off on me. Getting to know them all, hearing and reading their stories, and then telling them in oil paint made me stand a little taller and gave me the confidence to undertake even more stimulating projects.
When I fall for any reason, all I have to do is think of one of these remarkable individuals and remember what they all faced and then accomplished. I think of who they have become as a result of their intense desire to serve. I am truly blessed to have traveled with them for a short time. Many will remain friends for life. All the female portrait veterans and I shared a brief moment together in this life where our orbits caught up and traveled together to create art. What could be more invigorating and joyful than that?
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Like I said, we artists are a bit special. We scan the landscape of our own lives to identify compelling stories to bring to the world. This is my vocation, my service as a fellow traveler. Proudly She Served women carry such positive energy. Their tragedies and triumphs taught me what true courage is.