Faces of War

Matt Mitchell’s Portraits

Matt Mitchell knew that the project he envisioned—painting 100 portraits of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans—was ambitious, but five years into the endeavor, he admits he had no idea of the behemoth he’d signed onto. His 100 Faces of War Experience is so much larger, and has forced him delve deeper in so many ways than he’d ever anticipated. It’s almost as if at the beginning, the concept seemed so straightforward he could bypass imagining all the aspects that made it a large and complicated project, after all.

“Painting,” Mitchell says, “is the easy part.” In his small, Amherst, Massachusetts’ studio just behind his house, a handful of portraits—all in process—are up on the wall, along with one on his easel. These images—a couple of women, a few men all seemingly between the ages of 20 and 40—share in a certain starkness that doesn’t seem exactly intentional. The portraits reveal their faces and upper torsos. They aren’t adorned or particularly posed; they are simply presenting themselves. As if the phenomenon cannot be helped even a smiling face seems tinged with grief.

Working in his studio, Mitchell had been listening to the radio about the war for a couple of years, wondering why the coverage was so thin. In the hope that he could make these wars—fought far away by an all-volunteer military—more immediate and more concrete, he conceived of the project. He initially envisioned his role—that of “the artist”—provided him a bit of a remove from the subject matter and its intensity. Turns out the realities of war have crept much closer to home than he anticipated.

Of the endeavor, he says, “For so many reasons, this undertaking’s much more fluid, more in the middle and more all-consuming than I’d imagined. It’s made me forge a strange relationship with time. I certainly thought this would go faster. Back when I began these portraits, I wondered—not quite worried—whether the war might end before the portraits were complete. That certainly didn’t happen. The timeline of these wars is part of what’s made this story I’m telling so much more intense.”

Mitchell discovered the impact of war on the individuals he’s met is so much greater than they bargained for, and the project often brings this into stark relief. Of a portrait he began on a 2008 trip to meet veterans in California, sponsored by a supporter of the project, he hadn’t heard back from the subject in over a year. A key part of the process is that Mitchell has participants provide some narrative about their experience. Eventually, the man contacted Mitchell with this message: “I know what to say now.” Mitchell says the man’s yearlong quest to figure out what to say spoke volumes about how arduous it is to articulate the war experience.

A woman whose portrait Mitchell completed pulled out of the project because she found the image too difficult to look at. Mitchell explained, “She told me that she saw in the portrait how she’d become a different person since returning from combat. She recognized a sadness about her that was very painful to see reflected.”

Mitchell sought advice from counselor about the application process. Very often, he has to follow up with participants and he tries to do so respectfully, even gingerly.

In its way, the impact of war has permeated Mitchell’s life. He says he’s gotten much closer to his subjects than he’d planned. The “artist” or anthropologist’s remove didn’t entirely stick. He says, “Tyler Boudreau was the first person from the project I really connected with outside of the studio, outside of the work.” Boudreau, author of the book Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine, has become an outspoken anti-war activist. Of his friendship with Boudreau, Mitchell ventures, “When the conversations you have take place outside of work, the experience—you are no longer simply a professional—becomes part of you in a different way. I feel as if I went over an edge, and in opening those doorways, I feel changed, even though I have never visited the countries where combat’s taking place.”

Mitchell is careful, though, to hold politics at a remove from the project, despite its subject matter being in so many ways inherently political. He wants to keep “an unblinking eye” upon the people who have served. He says, “My own views are not at all helpful to further the project. I need to tread a line in which I don’t always speak out about whether this war was or is necessary.”

That does not mean he hasn’t attracted interest in the project from both “sides” of the issue. Anti-war veterans and activists have been instrumental in spreading the word, helping to locate contacts for subjects and offering support. The project’s nonprofit status is housed under the auspices of the Veterans’ Education Project. Through the Pentagon Channel’s media affairs—the Pentagon channel broadcasts to the military—Mitchell was approached about filming a piece on the making a portrait. Mitchell, who hasn’t yet seen the completed piece, says once it aired, “I got about thirty applications in three weeks. These applicants seem to understand the process, so the film must have done a really good job at explaining it.”

Mitchell fundraises actively in order to finance its completion, through individuals’ donations, grants from foundations and—as his body of work grows—renting out the exhibition. It’ll be at the University of New Hampshire in Manchester in October, and at the Jasper Rand Art Museum on the Athenaeum at Westfield State College in November. “College campuses are natural places to show this work,” posits Mitchell. “Because of the GI Bill, 100,000 vets return each year eligible for educational benefits. There’s a need to have open dialogue on campus, so opportunities to look and listen and address veterans’ issues are critical. The exhibition serves as a leaping off point.” Some of Mitchell’s work is also being shown at Ohio State University’s Urban Art Space, in a show entitled Visualizing the Experiences of War.

Portraits, Mitchell says, contain such complexity. “It’s a challenge to reveal what a person exudes while treading a line: although you want the person you’ve painted to be pleased, you do not want to engage in flattery.” He continues, “Flattery, rather than being complimentary, can be a bit condescending. There’s a greater challenge in revealing more than the most obvious beauty.” His portrait of Army Sergeant Rick Yarosh exemplifies this; the luminous quality of Mitchell’s image almost belies the fact that Yarosh was severely burned in combat. Disfigured, Yarosh has, since returning from duty, undergone close to forty surgeries. Mitchell doesn’t shy away from Yarosh’s injuries. The portrait was exhibited in the National Gallery. Yarosh says of the roadside bomb that changed his life: "That day made me who I am today, not just physically, but mentally."

Mitchell studied painting at Pratt Institute, where he became interested not only in painting but sculpture and fantasy. Married to artist and illustrator Rebecca Guay, Mitchell describes how attending to their professional lives works best as a collaborative effort: “Rebecca has some contracts that can float us financially for now, leaving me the opportunity to be the stay-at-home parent.” Their daughter, Vivian, is ten. Her being in school affords Mitchell a good chunk of time each day.

He says, “If I have enough time, and a large exhibition space for the entire project (there are a few possibilities) I can imagine completion by the spring of 2013.” Mitchell does not venture a guess as to whether the US will be finished with its military operations in those war zones. What he knows now, indelibly, is that wars or 100 Faces are, in part about how combat’s effects endure well beyond a formal ending.

For more information on Matt Mitchell and 100 Face of War, please visit www.100facesofwarexperience.org.

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