100 names. 100 faces. 100 Americans who fought for freedom.
So began Matt Mitchell’s journey to paint a portrait of 100 Americans who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. From the commander of a rifle company to an Army cavalry scout, Mitchell has captured the humanity of servicemembers through the 100 Faces of War Experience.
Mitchell has completed 50 portraits thus far, with each being a distinct experience. He spends hours poring over each portrait, as he captures every painstaking detail, with the hopes each portrait can “provide people with a place where they can step back a moment and look at the wide fields of thought and feeling.”
Most of the portraits in the project are of living people. When Mitchell begins each of these portraits it is essential to meet his subject in person to get a feeling for their personality. This was not the case for portrait number 49.
Number 49 depicts a father, a husband, a son. He also holds one other title – Coast Guardsman.
It is the portrait of Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal. Bruckenthal was on a security mission April 24, 2004, when suicide bombers initiated a waterborne assault. He was severely wounded while defending the oil terminal and later died from his injuries.
“With a portrait like the one of Nathan Bruckenthal it is a very different experience,” said Mitchell. “I feel a small part of the loss that others who have known him must feel. I am just an artist, but the whole time I am working on the painting I am wishing I had met him, wishing I knew more of his personality, his habitual facial expressions.”
Mitchell sorted through photographs provided by Bruckenthal’s father to find the perfect image that would capture Bruckenthal’s spirit. One photograph showed light streaming across Bruckenthal’s face as he stood on the deck of a ship.
“Because of this quality of light and the way his posture and attitude seemed so strong and in keeping with what his parents had said about him, I chose this photo as the primary one to work from,” recalled Mitchell.
As Mitchell began to paint however, he faced a challenge. “The eyes are the windows to the soul,” and in the photograph Mitchell was using, Bruckenthal was wearing sunglasses. Using another photograph, Mitchell captured Bruckenthal’s eyes, and something remarkable happened in the process.
“The other photos of Nathan showed him with a wistful gaze off into the distance,” said Mitchell. “So in the portrait I think you see an interesting thing happen. His posture and body and set of his jaw are strong and full of confidence and bravado, then his eyes are looking in to the distance with a thoughtful aspect.”
Each portrait is joined by a statement from the subject. There is nothing off-limits as many contribute letters home and journals of their experience at war, all saturated with raw emotion.
Bruckenthal’s mother provided a poem written by Bruckenthal when he was 17-years-old. Mitchell was given the poem just as he finished the work.
“The poem had those same kinds of qualities that I had started to think must be important for a portrait of this man,” said Mitchell. “Here is a man who wants to serve and protect to show his love. The poem expresses this so powerfully.”
From Dusk Till Dawn
by Nathan Brandt Bruckenthal, 1996
As the sun glides off the face of the earth,
I am there to hold you.
As the wind blows like a raging bull,
I am there to protect you.
I am there when you need me,
From Dusk till Dawn,
I am there.
Do you see me?
I am here….
Bruckenthal’s sense of duty resonates in his portrait and symbolizes not only his sacrifice but also the sacrifice of so many others.
“It is only a very, very small slice of the public which is aware of the Coast Guard’s presence in the theaters of war,” said Mitchell. “To look at the photo of Nathan on a sun-washed deck with his automatic weapon in his hands, ready for action, is to look at someone eager to serve his nation without need for the same public recognition a veteran of the other armed forces may gain.”