They are just 36 of the more than 150 Canadian soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since 2002.
But their faces will live on as a reminder of what is at stake when a nation goes to war, as a collection of portraits painted by Langley Fine Arts School students finds a permanent home in the nation’s capital.
Images painted by Peter Sarganis’ Grade 11 art class in the fall of 2009 depict the three dozen men and women who were killed during a single year of the Afghan conflict.
Once they were complete, however, the question became what to do with them. Rather than simply have them collect dust, Sarganis hoped that each painting could be presented to the soldiers’ families, as a tribute to their sacrifice. But bureaucracy hampered those efforts and so the school turned to Langley MP Mark Warawa for help.
In the end, it was decided the paintings would be best kept together in a place where all Canadians could appreciate them. And during a ceremony held Friday afternoon in Chief Sepass Theatre at Langley Fine Arts School, the pieces were turned over to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, where they will form part of its permanent collection.
The paintings will be displayed periodically at the Ontario museum and may travel as an exhibit throughout Canada, said Warawa. Wherever they are shown, he said, members of Canada’s military will draw strength from such “inspirational examples of patriotism.”
“The efforts of the Canadian Forces have been monumental in transforming the country of Afghanistan,” said Warawa. But, he noted, that change has come at huge cost in the number of members who have lost their lives.
“Those losses are deeply felt by their families and by us here, as Canadians,” he said.
“To the students, I’m sure you’ll be forever changed by the attachments you’ve formed while painting these portraits.”
The images are meant to “celebrate and honour the art students, but more importantly, the men and women they painted — those who’ve passed away and those who continue to serve,” said LFAS principal Jon Bonnar.
Sarganis thanked both Bonnar and former principal Balan Moorthy for helping to make his vision a reality. But even the art teacher had little idea that the assignment which began 20 months ago would quickly grow into much more than he’d anticipated.
“Once in a while you tap into an idea that is much bigger than you thought,” he said.
In this case, he said, that’s “the integral need of people to remember and honour.”
During Friday’s ceremony, three of the 36 portraits were displayed on the stage to represent the collection, and the trio of young artists who painted them spoke briefly about what the project meant to them.
Students John Kim, Kyuri Lee and Sarah Doerkson told the gathering that the project was instrumental in teaching them the meaning of sacrifice.
For Doerkson, who painted Pte. John Curwin, a Nova Scotia soldier who died on Dec. 13, 2008, the assignment also helped form a treasured connection with the soldier’s family and a better appreciation of the important role art plays in society.
“Without this project, without painting John Curwin, without honouring these soldiers, honouring these people, I never would have realized how much of an impact art can have on us,” Doerkson said.
A letter from Pte. Curwin’s mother, Danita Curwin, was read aloud: “I’m proud and happy about where the picture is going and I’m proud of the person who painted it,” she wrote.
Although she confessed she really wanted to have the painting of her son, Mrs. Curwin acknowledged it belongs in the museum, alongside the portraits of his fallen comrades.
While the details are still being worked out, prints of the portraits will be made and given to each family, said Bonnar.
“We’re excited, because that’s the conclusion of a full circle gift,” said the principal. “The soldiers have given of themselves and we’re trying to return as much as we can.”
In creating that gift, each of the students researched their subject and worked from official military photographs. In doing so, they learned a lot about the people whose portraits they’d been assigned.
Kim took his project one step further, creating an animated short film titled Salute, My Collared Pal, depicting the life of the soldier he’d painted and the dog that waited in vain for his master’s return.
The film has gone on to win provincial, national and international awards. It was screened for those gathered in the theatre and can be viewed on YouTube.
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the Royal Canadian Legion and all levels of government attended the ceremony, during which LFAS student Kristin Bunyan played piano and sang Bryan Adams’ Heaven, as the portraits, accompanied by photos of the artists and the images from which they worked, flashed on a giant screen.
Lt. Col. Douglas Poitras thanked the students on behalf of the military and their family members for their efforts.
“As fantastic a world as it is, there are things we can do as a community to work together to make it a better place, and that’s all we ordinary Canadians of the Canadian Forces do,” he said.
Board of Education chair Cecelia Reekie praised the students for their ability to capture the spirit of the soldiers and bring their stories to life.
To the soldiers’ families, she said, “It is my wish that this (collection) brings a sense of peace and assurance that your loved ones will never be forgotten for the sacrifices they made.”