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Face to face with the fallen
MANTI -- Julie Cawley Hanson remembers making the trip to see the nearly finished portrait of her brother, Marine Staff Sgt. James W. Cawley, in Kaziah Hancock's studio. Along with Cawley's wife, Miyuki, and two aunts, she wanted to see the painting the Manti artist had offered to do for free when she heard Cawley had been killed in the Iraq war.
"It was just a sweet experience. The light was coming in through the window on his face and we just couldn't believe our eyes. She had captured his face so well. I just held my hand out to the painting and said, 'These are his eyes,'" said Hanson.
The painting now hangs in the center of a wall decorated with awards, ribbons and other mementos from Cawley's life in the home of his wife and two children. "It's just beautiful, and that portrait is the centerpiece. . . . It's a family treasure," Hanson said.
Last year, when Hancock first offered to paint a free portrait of any soldier killed in the conflict, few would have predicted the battle would still be dragging on, with more than 1,000 American soldiers dead.
As more die in Iraq, Hancock's burden grows. When she will admit any drawbacks to the project, Hancock speaks only of its emotional costs -- "That's a damned lot of grief to go through over and over again" -- and brushes aside any other impact on her.
"I'm still alive, and he's not," she said, gesturing toward the portrait of her latest subject, Army Staff Sgt. Mike Mitchell, 25, of Atascadero, Calif. "So I owe him. Whatever the flip my situation is, I'm still better off than these guys who have died for me."
But the effort has exacted a financial toll, too: She is largely using her own money for oil paints, brushes, canvases and frames and taking time away from her other work to create the free portraits.
Scraping by is not a new circumstance for the artist, who two decades ago left what she describes as an abusive polygamous marriage to find herself ill-equipped to survive in the outside world. She eventually became a successful businesswoman, all the while honing the painting talents she was not allowed to develop as a young woman married at 15.
She has always lived frugally, she says, to help support her "charitable habits." She feels the soldiers are her children, and she will paint them all, no matter how many fall. "It's like a mother. When she has three children, she loves all of them equally. "
So far, she has painted 27 portraits, each of which takes hours.
Pfc. Matthew Naifeh of Indiana was killed on a training mission; his mother, Dee, learned of Hancock's offer through a story published in the American Legion magazine. "I was just so impressed by her patriotic feelings and her generosity. She had so much empathy for the families of the fallen soldiers," she said.
After hearing about Naifeh's portrait, both the American Legion and a group of veterans that makes pilgrimages to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall sent donations to Hancock. Others, both in Utah and elsewhere, also have helped.
Looking over photographs and letters the families send her from all over the country, Hancock speaks of them fondly, calling the military families "some of the most beautiful people I've ever met."
One letter told her, "We received the package today and the painting is sitting in the middle of the living room floor, and we're just sitting around it, weeping," she recalls. Another family sent her a picture of the toddler who will someday inherit the painting of her slain father.
When she first hears from the families, Hancock asks them to send photographs and some information about the subject. Sometimes working from less-than-ideal pictures, she brings the fallen to life with her signature quick brush strokes and intense color.
"She is almost channeling the energy of those soldiers through those photographs," said Pamela O'Mara, whose Utah Artist Hands gallery in Salt Lake City sells Hancock's work.
Now, in the face of overwhelming numbers of casualties, Hancock is hoping other portrait painters will step in and help. She asks them to do as she does and paint for free. Hancock also established the nonprofit "Project Compassion" fund to help with the cost of art supplies; people wanting to help in the effort can donate at any Wells Fargo bank.