A student exhibit in Parkville Middle School's media center pays tribute to fallen soldiers with portraits and nameplates.

Pupils paint a picture of the cost of conflict

February 16, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

In selecting a portrait subject, Lauren Dennis found herself drawn to Army Staff Sgt. James L. Pettaway Jr. of Glen Burnie after learning about a son he left behind.

Taylor Hahn picked Army Spc. George A. Mitchell of Western Maryland because she thought he looked sad in a photo.

Carlyn Thomas wanted to paint a woman, so she chose Army Pfc. Leslie D. Jackson of Richmond, Va.

Lauren, Taylor and Carlyn are eighth-graders in the visual and graphic arts magnet program at Parkville Middle School. Pettaway, Mitchell and Jackson are soldiers who died in Iraq. The girls found their photographs and biographical information amid hundreds of others posted online.

The resulting portraits are three of 40 in a student exhibit called "Fallen Heroes: The Cost of War," on display in Parkville Middle's media center lobby.

The project began as a class assignment from art teacher Linda M. McConaughy. For many of the young artists, it has turned into something far more meaningful.

Each of the 40 pupils has painted a portrait of a fallen soldier. In addition, the group is working to create a paper nameplate - listing name, age, hometown and circumstances of death - for every American soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan: 1,603 as of yesterday , according to the Web site the pupils are using.

McConaughy asked the pupils last week whether they wanted to stop with the 300-plus nameplates they have completed. The answer was a resolute no.

"Everyone deserves to have something," said Hannah Rosenberger, 13.

As the list of casualties grows, the pupils are debating when to stop adding to their exhibit. On Monday, they printed a stack of pages with biographical information on those who have died since the start of the year.

When the exhibit is taken down -no date for that has been set - the pupils plan to offer their artwork to the families of the soldiers they painted. The pupils have not contacted the families; they are contemplating what to say to them.

Told by The Sun about the portrait of her daughter, Viola Jackson said it's appropriate for children to learn about her daughter because "a lot of people looked up to Leslie when she was here." She was 18 when she died in May.

For now, the Parkville Middle pupils are scrambling to complete the nameplates by Friday, when they have invited several politicians to come see their work.

At the end of their class period Monday, the pupils had, by one count, 492 nameplates posted and another 108 ready to be hung. Some are staying after school and bringing home typed biographical information to cut out and mount. Carlyn, wearing braces around her wrists, said the work has exacerbated her tendonitis, but she wants to keep going.

The portraits and nameplates have filled the lobby, with nameplates extending down the adjoining halls. The pupils have rejected suggestions to hang some of the nameplates elsewhere in the school, saying it is important for people to be able to see all the names at once. They say they know their work is making an impact, because they've seen it make teachers and other adults cry.

For 13-year-old Lauren, the project became especially significant Jan. 26, when Marine Cpl. Kyle Grimes was killed when the military helicopter in which he was riding crashed in western Iraq. He was her second cousin.

Lauren finished her painting of Pettaway and helped McConaughy with a portrait of Grimes. She said the gesture has made her family proud.

Inspired by a news account of a university tribute to fallen soldiers, McConaughy assigned the portraits early last month, hoping to show her pupils in her two eighth-grade visual and graphic arts classes how art applies to the world around them. An unintended result: It has spurred intense anti-war sentiments within her classes.

"I used to support it," Kelly Benny, 13, said of the war. "I thought it would prevent terrorists. Since we started doing this, I changed my mind. It's not fair that people have to die, and it's so many."

In the two classes, only one pupil, 13-year-old Jennifer Bates, said she supports the war, saying it is bringing freedom to the Iraqi people.

McConaughy asked her pupils to write, on the inscriptions below their portraits, a brief statement of their views on the American military action. A sampling of the replies:

"The effects of the war on these people and their families is devastating."

"This war has gone on a long time and many innocent men and women are being killed for no reason."

"I think that this whole war is pointless. George W. Bush has America at war because he made ridiculous assumptions and now thousands of people have died because he jumps to conclusions."

Several of the pupils said they were most upset learning about the accidents in which soldiers died. Raven Wilson, 14, said she decided to paint Marine Lance Cpl. Gregory E. MacDonald of Washington, D.C., because he died when his light-armored vehicle flipped June 25, 2003. His age, 29, also stuck in her head.

"He shouldn't have died," she said. "He wasn't even 30."

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