By the fall of 2008, I had been painting portraits of fallen soldiers for the better part of a year. This was supposed to be something I was doing in my spare time, but had become an all-consuming pursuit that occupied my waking hours, even my dreams. One by one, the paintings were gathering, transforming the corner of the basement where I work into hallowed ground of sorts.
During this time, I was doing some promotional work for Rev. Bob Ripley of the Metropolitan United Church in London, Ontario––logo development, graphic design of his church programme and newsletter. Rev. Ripley was quite taken by the portraits of the soldiers, and asked if they might possibly be displayed at his upcoming Sunday Remembrance Day service.
And so, a selection of completed and near-completed paintings were set up in the Grand Room of Metropolitan. This was the first time the paintings had ever been displayed in public, in fact, it was the first time I had ever had a public exhibit of any sort.
The response from the congregation that Sunday was overwhelming and it was suggested that the exhibit be held over and opened to the public on the upcoming Remembrance Day. Situated opposite to the cenotaph in Victoria Park, and with the magnificent setting of the Grand Room, the church was an ideal location for an exhibit of the work.
That is how on Remembrance Day of 2008, the paintings went on display during the ceremonies at the cenotaph in London. It was a beautiful autumn day, and a large crowd gathered for the service and the parade. During the morning, a steady stream of people filed through the open doors of the church to view the portraits. Again, the response was overwhelming.
What really struck me that morning was meeting members of the Canadian Armed Forces, individuals who had served with and personally knew some of the guys in the paintings. One of the most touching things that day was watching as these men and women silently filed past the row of portraits, paying tribute to a comrade and friend by removing the poppies they wore and placing them along the portraits.
I was quite overwhelmed by it all. As the day progressed and the crowds began to disperse, a family came through the doors and made their way into the room. I watched as they walked along the row of paintings, stopping at the portrait of Trooper Mark Wilson. And I remember this–watching as a mother reached out and touched the painting of her son, and standing with her outstretched hand on his face, bowed her head and wept.
After that, I don’t remember much of details. In the blur that followed, a lady from the church, God bless her, grabbed my arm and introduced me to the family. I remember talking to Mr. Wilson as his wife stood at the portrait of her son. I remember he offered to buy the painting and explaining that the portraits were a set and not for sale, that possibly they would go on display somewhere, that after, I wasn’t sure where they might eventually end up. I remember talking to Mark’s brothers, and finally speaking with Mrs. Wilson, though I couldn’t say for certain now a word of what was said.
I suppose in the back of my mind I knew that one day I might meet the family of one of the fellows I was painting. When it happened, I felt so ill-prepared—and still do. What to say, when words seem so inadequate? At such times, there is no script to memorize, no patent lines to rehearse. Helpless and lost for words, we finally allow our hearts to speak and trust the right words will be there.
As the Wilsons made their way to the door to leave, I glanced to the portrait of their son on the wall and knew immediately what to do, the only thing that you or anyone else in my place could have done. I grabbed up the painting from the wall and rushing over to Mrs. Wilson as she was leaving, gave it to her.
Soon after, the great room began to clear. Someone was talking to me still, something about art and painting, but I’m afraid my thoughts were somewhere else. Then they too were gone. When I finished taking down the exhibit and packing the paintings away, I carefully gathered up the poppies that had been placed at the portraits. Alone then, in the emptiness of the great room of the magnificent old church, I paused to gather my thoughts. And there, shimmering through the bustle and confusion of the day, this brilliant, shining moment.