Saturday, January 31, 2009

Faces of Remembrance - Bedford, MA - Bedford Minuteman

Faces of Remembrance - Bedford, MA - Bedford Minuteman: "It all starts with the eyes. They are the focal point for Gina Johnson when she begins working on a portrait of a fallen soldier.

“I’m what you call a volunteer-aholic,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been a volunteer since I was in middle school and always included my kids. Now that my kids are in college, I wanted to have something that was a little bit more committed – something ongoing.”"

Johnson, who is the office manager for The Legacy at Arlington Center at 438 Massachusetts Ave., has since started with the eyes of 44 Bay State troops who have lost their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan, all of which will be on display from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 30, at the American Legion Hall, 162 Winn St., Burlington.

There is no charge for the portraits, which she does, she added, simply to offer some joy to the families of soldiers who have lost their lives.

Johnson credits her brother, Paul Roth, a Burlington resident, with moving the project forward in order to present the portraits to family members and the public in general.

A day after seeing a tribute to fallen soldiers online, Johnson learned the fiancé of a former art student had been killed in Iraq.

“He was my first soldier,” she said.

That soldier was Army Staff Sgt. Joan J. Duran of Roxbury. He was killed on Aug. 10, 2007 in Iraq.

On the Web site, Johnson read stories on the lives of these men and women.

“The very first one I read was [Army Spec.] Matthew Boule,” she said. “His family then wanted to do something to ‘pay it forward.’ And that’s my whole concept.

“His parents were inspired to do something,” she added. “Each of these parents wanted to do something to keep their memories alive. I chose to put a face to that list and make it even more powerful.”

Johnson calls her project “Operation Home Ties: Faces of Remembrance.”

“The name came to me because of the yellow ribbons that are put up for all our hometown heroes in hopes that they’ll return,” explained Johnson. “How sad was it that parents were interviewed at the worse time in their lives. I wanted to do something that would give them joy again.”

Art, Johnson said, has always been a part of her life.

“Art has always been in my family,” she said. “I’m the seventh out of eight [children]. It’s a gift that I share all the time.”

Johnson also completed a portrait of Sgt. 1st Class Keith Callahan of Woburn, who lost his life in Iraq on Jan. 24, 2007. Callahan was the first Woburn son to lose his life in combat since the Vietnam War.

Johnson finished the initial portrait and delivered it to his mother, Joan. At her request, Johnson completed several portraits of Callahan with family members, including his widow, Dody, and the couple’s children: Tyler, 13, Devin, 8, and twins Brooke and Brady, 6.

“I love them. She just captured the essence of him,” said Joan, who presented the portraits to her daughter-in-law and grandchildren as Christmas gifts.

“They were just overwhelmed with it,” she said of their reaction.

Last Mother’s Day, Johnson presented Joan with a portrait her and Keith.

“She’s been very good to me,” said Joan, adding she plans to attend the event at the American Legion.

Johnson typically has an audience while working on the portraits, thanks to the benevolence of Peter Mamakos, owner of The Restaurant at 489 Main St. in Woburn.

After completing the first portrait, Johnson said she needed to find a “home base” to continue her work and decided to approach Mamakos with the idea of working there one night each week.

“That’s where I’ve been for eight months. Every Monday I sit in there and the patrons watch what I do,” she said. “I gave my e-mail address and the address of the restaurant so parents could send their pictures to me.”

Johnson also expressed thanks to the many patrons at The Restaurant, AC Moore, her employer, Robert Mirak, as well as the many donors who have helped her obtain the supplies needed to complete the portraits

Mamakos, she added, is also providing food to the American Legion for the event Friday.

Most of the portraits are done in uniform, but a few are of troops wearing civilian attire, but Johnson works with any photo made available to her.

“They’re really done quite well,” said Robert Hogan, director of Veterans’ Services in Burlington. “When I saw it, I was impressed how close to the details she was.”

Hogan will be present for the first public viewing of the portraits at the American Legion hall.

“The Legion was willing to do it because veterans were involved,” he said.

State Sen. Ken Donnelly and Rep. Charles Murphy will also be attending the event and the Legion’s chaplain, the Rev. Francesco Passamonte will be on hand to bless the photos and the souls of the soldiers who have died.

“I hope the average person will come down to look at the pictures and put a face to the name of these young men. They’re still children in some cases,” said Hogan. “She’s doing a wonderful thing with this...

[bth: Gina's work was very nice and very well put together. The link to this article provides a link to her 44 portraits. Very impressive and a kind act which was appreciated by the families we know.]

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