Geri Zaki and Chyna Salie were about the same age when their fathers went to war. Geri’s dad returned from Vietnam. Chyna’s father did not come home.
David Salie, deployed with the 3rd Brigade 3rd Infantry from Fort Benning, was killed in Iraq on Valentine's Day 2005. Now Zaki and about 50 other artists are paying tribute to Salie and the other Georgia servicemen and women who have lost their lives fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, by immortalizing them on canvas.
"With all the military in my family, this is first opportunity I’ve had to do something," said Zaki. "With this project, we are able to come out and say the things we wish people had said about our dads," she added on behalf of the daughters of military men who are among the artists involved in the project.
The project began in 2005 when five Atlanta women formed the Atlanta Fine Arts League (AFAL) with the stated goal: to give back to the community and celebrate and encourage young artists. One of the founders, Lisa Gleim-Jonas, who had participated in "Project 911" to paint fireman and policemen who died in the attack on the World Trade Center, was the catalyst for their first "Art from the Heart" project.
Their biggest obstacle was finding the soldier’s families, but with the help of Deborah Tainsh of Columbus, whose stepson Sgt. Patrick Tainsh was among the fallen, they began to make contact. All the portraits are being done with the assistance of the families.
"Each artist has gotten close enough to the family to understand what it means to lose a loved one, especially someone so young and promising," explained Zaki.
As an example, she cited the case of one of the founding members whose daughter died during the project. "The mother she was painting for came to visit to comfort her. Who could better understand what she was going through?"
Zaki has gotten to know Salie’s widow, Deedy, and Belinda Poole of Ellaville, Ga. Poole is the mother of Sgt. First Class Victor Anderson, the second of the portraits Zaki has finished. Now Poole is coping with a relative’s battle with leukemia. "She is the most courageous woman," says Zaki. "She just keeps plugging away and coping with loss."
Many of the artists have encountered similar stories. Whether or not they support the war, Zaki says they all support the soldiers and their families, so their paintings are truly art from their hearts.
The artists, who were each screened by the founders, are primarily from Georgia although some participants come from Tennessee and Florida. They have different backgrounds, styles and degrees of accomplishment. They are asked to take more traditional approach to the portraits so the families will have something that is more representational by which to remember their soldiers.
Each head and shoulders portrait is 20" by 40" in acrylic or oil on canvas. The artists work from photographs. The families determine what the soldier will be wearing in the portrait. Some have chosen civilian clothes; others dress uniform or fatigues. Some of the families have suggested corrections. For instance, Zaki says she had the wrong color for one of her subject’s Purple Heart ribbon.
The artists average three weeks for a portrait. Of the more than 100 Georgia fallen heroes, 50 portraits have been completed. Once completed, they are given to the families, but a special exhibit is planned at the National Museum of Patriotism in Atlanta Sept. 11-Nov. 11. A biography will accompany each portrait along with an audio message from the artists talking about their experience.
Many of the families of those portrayed are coming to the exhibit opening. "They want the memories of their sons and daughter to stay alive and for the individual to be recognized," Zaki says.
Museum Operations Director George Wieder says they are thrilled to be able to share the stories of the heroes. He says the exhibit will be emotional. "We are hoping everyone will realize it is celebrating the tremendous sacrifice these soldiers have made."
He also has praise for the artists. "This gift of their tremendous talent is overwhelming. We have something on our badges that says ‘patriotism is an emotion, citizenship is putting it into action’ and that is what this is."
The artists volunteered their time and supplies and several businesses have donated frames, shipping and duplications of the portraits. After the initial showing the AFAL plans to use those duplications for a traveling exhibit.
IF YOU GO
What: "Art from the Heart"
When: September 11-November 11
Hours: Tues-Fri, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun 1-5 p.m.
Where: National Museum of Patriotism, Midtown Atlanta, 18th and Spring streets
Admission: Adults $12, seniors and students $10
If you or someone you know has lost a loved one from Georgia who was serving in Afghanistan or Iraq and would like to be a recipient of a portrait, contact AFAL at AtlantaFineArtsLeague@yahoo.com. (In the subject line type in FAMILY)