In September 2004, lauded Sonoma painter Chester Arnold was reading the New York Times when he came across a feature dubbed “Roster of the Dead.” It was a commemoration of the first thousand U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war composed of their black and white thumbnail-sized photographs.
“When I saw that I realized that this was a really emotionally engaging spread to me because I come from a family of military people and there’s a lot of compassion for the people involved with the service,” says Arnold.
He was inspired. Arnold was then teaching a painting class at the College of Marin in Kentfield and had originally intended on leading his students through a self-portrait assignment. Instead, he asked his students how they would feel about painting the faces of the fallen. Their interest piqued – emotionally, politically or otherwise – the students leapt at the opportunity.
“What drove me to want to have them made was a feeling of giving the people who were in those little pictures in the New York Times a more permanent presence in the world, at least publicly, than they were getting from those pictures,” says Arnold of his inspiration for the project, which would eventually culminate in “Never to Forget: Faces of the Fallen,” a traveling exhibition the portraits, appearing at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art from Jan. 14, through Sunday, Feb. 26.
“With all of the history of memorial portraiture, I thought this might be a way of dealing with something meaningful and getting out of the narcissistic phase and into the humanitarian,” says Arnold of the class assignment that would become the exhibit. “Most of these students were really young, oftentimes, the age of the people they were painting.”
When the students returned with their completed paintings, Arnold displayed them simultaneously. The effect of all the faces staring back at the artists proved emotionally overwhelming for some.
“This was a much more emotional experience than they had realized,” says Arnold, who resolved to continue with the project though he had to reluctantly limit its scope to specifically the American soldiers of the Iraq conflict for the sake of keeping the endeavor focused.
Word spread throughout the community college and Arnold soon had a garrison of painters, ranging from students to professionals, determined to paint the first thousand fallen, which culminated in a show at the college’s campus gallery.
“Because of the distribution of skills was vast – we have beginners, developmentally disabled people, we have really expert people who have come back to the classroom. From the beginning, I wanted to keep it simple so I said we’ll use a three color palette to keep it modest, which precludes the color problems that might emerge when you’re working from a black and white photograph which is was we had,” says Arnold who distributed seven by five inch canvas boards for the artist to paint.
The limited palette and consistent size of the paintings contributes an aesthetic unity to the pieces. That said, Arnold had no mandate as to how the source photos were to be interpreted resulting in an array of images from traditional portraiture to those that evoke their subjects more abstractly.
“A person may not have top notch skills, but if they’re putting their heart and soul into this, they really should be given the opportunity to show the work. We decided, unanimously, that this should be an unjuried, unedited show. This is all human content, it’s going to be interesting,” says Arnold, who adds sagely, “They’re all caring at the same level.”
The inaugural show was “overwhelming” Arnold recounts. Media coverage soon followed. Local newspaper articles were followed by wire stories from the Associated Press. Network television news followed suit, as did Russian broadcasters and even a TV journalist from Austrian who produced a documentary about the exhibit.
“There was a lot of public exposure. It was really surprising for everyone involved but at the same time extremely satisfying for all the students who had participated. They felt part of a bigger, human issue,” says Arnold.
Later, Arnold was contacted by representatives from Syracuse University in New York interested in contributing and exhibiting the show, which also became a wellspring of media attention. Some families of the fallen even traveled to see the show.
“I’ve tried to frame it from the very beginning this was something that was apolitical. You can interpret it positively, negatively, anyway you want, but the people who painted these portraits painted them because they care about the individuals whether they’re for or against the war,” says Arnold.
“I had students from both sides painting portraits and they both painted with equal fervor and equal concern. I thought that was a way to use the visual arts to bridge a political divide and at the same time deal with real issues instead of art about art about art. You see people at the museum modern art scratching their heads wondering ‘Why the hell is this here? I don’t get it.’ No one gets it. But this was something that everyone got.”
The SVMA exhibit features a total of 1976 paintings. The most recent portraits created by students from Sonoma State University and Sonoma Valley High School.
“Faces of people, whether they’re photographs or paintings, survive as a kind of witness to their having existed visual. Photographs do that too, but what we find in portraiture is that the portrait always ends up being a painting of two people – the subject and the artist. It’s almost as though the artist is putting part of themselves in the painting and is keeping the image alive,” says Arnold who is a member of the SVMA board of directors and is curating the SVMA exhibition (the museum has received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help fund the free exhibition, a first for SVMA).
Arnold intends to continue the project for the duration of the war and is currently corresponding with other schools to maintain the project as the war endures.
“We’ve asked ourselves ‘How can you stop doing this? How can you leave anybody out’?” he says.
“Faces of the Fallen” on Thursday, Jan. 12, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. During this exhibition, SVMA will be open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with admission free every day for the full run. The museum is at 551 Broadway. For information, call 939-7862.