Hector Garcia probably wouldn't read his poem to you.
"Me and a buddy of mine who passed away kind of wrote it together," says the 25-year-old Army sergeant, "and we made a deal not to share that with anybody but people with PTSD, as a thing to help them realize what they're going through."
But Garcia did read the poem to Laura BenAmots. On Veterans Day last November, Cedar Springs Hospital took him and other patients to BenAmots' Pikes Peak Community College art gallery. She asked if any of them would participate in her Battle Portraits: Wounded Lions Wounded Lambs project, and Garcia, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after having completed tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, volunteered.
Not long afterward, he and BenAmots met at the hospital, and talked over the course of an hour while she worked on his portrait. "The Mask" shares more than just the title of the poem he read that day; it also shares the feeling behind it. Garcia's full lips and strong brow are obvious, but his face is somewhat wooden, looking intent on protecting what's inside. BenAmots describes it this way: "Don't be fooled by the fact that I laugh when you tell me a joke, or I cry, or something. ... I'm not the man I once was."
Though the artist is careful to inform vets she's not a therapist, Garcia says it wasn't hard to open up and talk to her: "It was kind of like being in counseling, you know what I mean?"
Hour of power
BenAmots is a 49-year-old single mother of two sons, one in college, the other in high school. She runs the PPCC gallery and instructs art classes. Her voice is thickly accented, a remnant from a childhood spent partially in Israel, and she's often smiling. She exudes warmth, even on the phone, making it no mystery why she connects with people.
A couple years back, she encountered a series of dark inspirations: a personal friendship with a soldier, the military documentary Tattooed Under Fire, the week in 2009 when five soldiers in Colorado Springs committed suicide.
Disturbed, BenAmots turned to her art. Over the course of several smaller projects, and also further research on PTSD and traumatic brain injury, she decided to interview some affected soldiers in person. Including Garcia, she wound up talking with six soldiers, in hour-long, one-on-one sessions. In each hour, she'd paint a literal portrait of the soldier as they talked. Later, she'd expand the portrait into a larger, more abstract vision, encompassing the ideas they discussed.
Battle Portraits as it is today — a large-scale group of paintings, some as big as 10 feet tall, plus drawings and a book about the works — began in earnest about a year and a half ago. BenAmots wanted to publish a book (her second) about the works, and donate part of the proceeds to art therapy programs for the military. She shopped the idea to several galleries and institutions around town before finding a fit at the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs, which aims to use hers as the first book in an annual publishing project.
The materials go to a family printing company in Missouri this month, and will be available in January. The BAC will distribute on its own, as well as through Amazon. LuDel Walter, the BAC's Art Book Publishing project manager, wants an initial run of 1,000 copies of a 64-page, full-color paperback that will cost between $20 and $25.
"We're pretty optimistic about how it will work," Walter says.
The BAC also has given BenAmots studio space, and come January, she'll show the entire Battle Portraits collection there, for the first time. Some paintings have been displayed in public already, where BenAmots says some soldiers have approached her, visibly touched. "Every time soldiers see them, they tear up," she says. "Like, the toughest guys."
'Texan glory girl'
BenAmots says the toughest guy she met — "by far" — was actually a woman, named Ashley Green. "She loved being a soldier."
Green appears confident and handsome in her initial portrait. Her eyes are level and her jaw strong. These traits carry over into her large-scale portrait, "Glory Girl," a magnificent, sketchy work that elevates Green to a dignified all-soldier, stars of acid green, orange and white dancing above her head like a wispy crown.
But BenAmots says each soldier she interviewed at some point remembered "a bad day," and Green was no exception. "Even she, my tough-as-nails, beautiful, Texan glory girl, teared up."
Asked why she thinks these near-strangers were able to speak so openly with her, BenAmots replies, "These are not people who are in denial."
Still, the extent to which they share — and even implicate the viewer, albeit indirectly — is one of the things that most intrigues Jessica Hunter Larsen about BenAmots' work.
"We are drawn into the humanity, we're drawn into this common experience of suffering and loss and grief," says the curator at Colorado College's I.D.E.A. Space. "I think her work really makes you realize that not only do we share that, but as a community, we share that responsibility to the people who are suffering because of war."
Hunter Larsen is interviewing BenAmots, writing a question-and-answer segment for her book. She feels that BenAmots not only succeeds with a unique take on portraiture, but also because she weaves personal and universal themes very well.
"Her work really plumbs some deep questions," she says. "It goes in some pretty sophisticated and uncomfortable places, sort of using an individual's personal story as a conduit to get to these much larger issues."
The disconnect between many Americans and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is nothing like what BenAmots herself experienced in Israel during the Yom Kippur War in the 1970s. In the foreword to her book, she writes that the front there was near and inescapable.
She spent seven to eight years of her "formative life" there, before returning to the U.S. as a teenager. When asked about the time, BenAmots seems conflicted. She doesn't want to bemoan her experiences, but they have made indelible impressions.
"I was such a shy and romantic child," she adds, "and I think everybody's childhood is a combination of joy and heartbreak and trauma, and my childhood was no exception. ...
"But when we moved to Israel, it gave this very strange collection of eclectic experiences of my life. It gave me a touchstone and a foundation that I didn't have before, didn't have since."
And that includes a knowledge of war.
"For me, Israel is a nation of PTSD. You know, it's always existing in a state of trauma or between traumas. And between traumas there's a sort of feverish pitch, desire, or heightened reality that everybody wants ... [a] desperation for normality."
BenAmots admits that doing this project hasn't been easy. At one point, she says, she descended to a "dark place." But to fall into despair would not only thwart her efforts, but the outreach from those around her, the grants from local arts organizations, the work being done at the BAC, the faith from the soldiers who told her their stories.
"There's something oddly life-affirming about the creative process," she says, "and so even though I'm functioning in the realms of people's nightmares, there is something cathartic about then making it a part of a life force, a creative process, a work of art."