Of my various experiences painting in front of the public, this was the most moving. To begin with, the Wall itself sets a tone that is sobering. All of those names, column upon column, row upon row, forcing you to think about the price that the families of a nation pay whenever there is a call to arms.
I could not help feeling that the project had been, in a sense, blessed.
I was tempted to move my easel close to the Wall, and search out a dynamic composition. A moment’s consideration quickly ended that notion. The Wall is a place of quiet contemplation, and my presence that close would have been inappropriate. I opted for a distant, straight-forward viewpoint with a sun-drenched landscape bisected by the dark shape of the Wall.
Throughout the 4-day experience, I was visited by hundreds of people, and handed my paint brush to several dozen of them. Many of these visitors insisted they had never painted a picture before, but with a little persuasion, they added color, shape and texture to the underpainting. Unlike the carefully controlled process I use in my personal work, this liberating approach allowed visitors to influence the look of the painting and become part of a shared experience.
Of all my interactions, the most significant were the ones with veterans or their family members. Some spoke openly of their time in Vietnam. All knew someone whose name was on the wall, and in a few cases, brushstrokes were added to the painting in honor of those who were lost.
Many thanked me and shook my hand. I felt honored and a little humbled.
One meeting stands out. On the first morning, as I finished sketching the basic composition, I was approached by a veteran who introduced himself as Les Fordahl. Les explained that he had been a combat artist in Vietnam, and I was secretly star-struck. I had served as a graphic-artist and illustrator in the Marine Corps during peace time, and had developed a fascination with combat artists throughout our nation’s history. We talked shop for a few minutes, and then Les agreed to put down the first strokes of oil paint on the panel. I could not help feeling that the project had been, in a sense, blessed.