A World War Two Portrait Journey
By Chris Demarest
As a child growing up in the post-war 1950’s, television entered our living rooms on a daily basis. And like all young kids who find themselves admiring someone, my own bit of worship began on Saturday mornings where a little cartoon mouse, dressed in cape and tights, saved the mouse world from the evil-doings of the feline population. In an operatic voice Mighty Mouse boomed: “Here I come to save the day” streaked downward, red cape flashing and delivered numerous knockout blows to the bad guys. I would grab a towel, tie it around my neck and run around the living room in search of my own imaginary bad guys.
My friends and I played “army” in the our backyards and with toy bolt action rifles made of real wood and metal that felt like the real deal, not to mention various leftover garments borrowed from our veteran dads, the “enemy” was doomed. Movies like The Longest Day, programs like Twelve O’clock High and Combat, to name but a few, played into my fantasy hero world well into my teens.
As an adult, in my forties having recently moved to a small Vermont town, I had the opportunity to join a volunteer fire department and for the first time in my life, got a sense of what a real hero does. From that experience came a book called Firefighters A to Z which led to the literary path of more so-called heroes, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard, Hurricane Hunters and eventually to the Persian Gulf where I went to document, in art, the further work of the USCG as well as the U.S. Navy.
Of course the idea of labeling someone a hero is the public’s way of honoring good, noble and selfless deeds. It is a way for us to single out exceptional behavior and actions. A real hero would deny that moniker. When I began the project of painting World War Two portraits, I wasn’t looking to paint heroic actions by individuals or groups. I didn’t want to capture the horrors of battle. What attracted me to this idea was capturing the quiet moments in what was the largest scale war in our planet’s history. Many of the portraits I started with were of deceased parents of friends from my home town, painting their images as they looked in the war. They were but kids who took on tasks beyond imagination. They took on evils from two separate war fronts, eager to right the wrongs foisted upon them like the little mouse of my youth.
What I was choosing to do was show the average every day man and woman who took up the call to arms to defend our freedom, from not only the war front, but the homefront as well. As I began taking the exhibit on tour, it was with the genuine love of meeting people connected to the war, be they participants or as young kids then or offspring and spouses.
The choice to travel and paint on-site was to continue giving me this opportuinty. As I tell people constantly, the portraits are conduits for conversation. Pointing my car north for the start of the first leg, I began chasing heroes again. My heroes.