Culture

Artist who sketched portraits of soldiers an 'unsung hero' of WWII

Elizabeth Black is the focus of a public TV documentary, as her son strives to make sure her story is known

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When he thinks back, John Black remembers his mother talking about her work during World War II, how she sketched portraits of service members, hundreds of them, assigned to battlefields throughout Europe.

But he was a boy, and she was his mother. The war was the past, and there were so many other interesting things. The topic fell from his memory. After his mother died in 1983 at 71, her mementos from the war remained, as they had for decades, neatly tucked into the Navy footlocker of her late husband. The footlocker was moved into a relative's garage.

And there it sat.

In 2010, the footlocker made its way to Black's home in Germantown, Tenn. He opened it. And what he saw amazed him. Records, notebooks, clippings — and 100 photographic copies of the wartime portraits his mother had sketched from the summer of 1944 to April 1945, a stunning compilation of soldiers and sailors, enlisted men and officers, black men and white men, even a few women.

Since he opened that footlocker, John Black, 66, is making it his job to ensure that everyone knows the story of his mother, Elizabeth Black, a young, accomplished Pittsburgh artist who in 1944 convinced the American Red Cross to put her on a special assignment to create portraits of those at war to send back to their loved ones at home. And who after the war found herself a housewife and mother in small-town Virginia, her artistic dreams and wartime adventures packed away.

"She was one of those unsung heroes of World War II," said David Solomon, the producer and writer of "Portraits for the Home Front: The Story of Elizabeth Black," a WQED-TV Pittsburgh public-television documentary that premiered last week.

"You certainly hear about the bravery of the troops," he said. "You don't necessarily hear a story like this."

Portrait service for troops

Veterans Day, World War II, American Red Cross
Elizabeth Black in the Red Cross.
American Red Cross

It was front-page news in Pittsburgh when local artist Elizabeth Black joined the Red Cross in June 1943 as part of the Clubmobile brigades — women who drove to war camps in buses or trucks to visit the troops and dispense coffee, doughnuts and some cheer. By spring 1944, she had mailed a 10-page handwritten proposal to the Red Cross brass in Washington, offering a portrait service, a pictorial record of those fighting the war.

Permission was soon granted. In less than a year, she drew nearly 1,000 charcoal portraits, sometimes a dozen in a day, traveling from England to Germany, visiting camps in six countries. At her suggestion, the camps held lotteries to determine who would sit for her, and she usually drew a crowd watching her work.

Along with her art supplies, she traveled with a notebook, asking her subjects to sign their portraits and write their hometown addresses. She filled two notebooks, and they serve as a record of her work and the war.

On Oct. 21, 1944, a staff sergeant from Los Angeles wrote, "My best wishes to the finest personality I have ever met and sincerely an artist to scetch (sic) a mug like mine. Thanks a million!" A poem from a Brooklyn soldier ended, "Never will I forget that friendly gal/Who made me smile, thank you pal."

In addition to those artifacts, she kept the letters she received from recipients of the portraits. Those are the most poignant, John Black said.

"The messages in those letters were from the mothers, the wives, the sisters," he said. "In some cases, the soldier had actually died before the portrait got to the family. They would write a letter saying, 'Thank you so much. We will cherish this forever. He was killed a month ago.'"

The ones who didn't come home

World War II, Veterans Day, American Red Cross
Elizabeth Black's son John, who found more than 100 photos of her portraits in an old Navy footlocker.
Paul Ruggieri/WQED

Michael Kraus is the curator of Pittsburgh's Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, a 103-year-old repository of artifacts and stories of troops and civilians who served in war. During the making of the documentary, John Black took the footlocker to the museum to hear Kraus' appraisal of Elizabeth Black's work.

"She was singularly different," Kraus said. "I have a lot of respect for her. They're out in the field — this isn't Saturday night, a quick cartoon at the fair. They're in their combat clothes."

Viewing all the portraits together, as a gallery of 100, is intense.

"I can almost see those men standing there. She has really found something in their expression and their look to make them very real," Kraus said. "Viewing them in a group makes me wonder how many of them made it."

That adds to the impact.

"She sees their souls," he said.

The question of who survived the war and who didn't is a natural one, given the intimacy of each portrait. One regiment she sketched was among the first to land in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Few survived. And not all the families received their pictures in the mail — it was, after all, across an ocean and in wartime — so Solomon had WQED interns do some sleuthing with the names attached to the portraits not only to ensure that families had received them but also to discover what happened afterward.

It's a process that continues. All the nearly 100 portraits from the footlocker are online, and family members are urged to contact the station with their stories. Some of the families have had the portraits hanging on their walls for years but always wondered who Elizabeth Black was. Others are just receiving theirs now, thanks to the documentary.

"It might have been 40 fleeting minutes in the field," Solomon said. "But it provided a lifetime of memories for these families."

Questions not asked

World War II, Veterans Day, American Red Cross
Julian and Elizabeth Black at their wedding in Paris in 1944.
John Black

Before the war, Elizabeth Black was a rising artist in her native Pittsburgh, painting portraits for prominent families like the Mellons and studying at the prestigious Art Students League in New York. In 1940 she was commissioned to paint 25 life-size oil portraits of literary greats such as Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, standing on a ladder to paint them into niches near the ceiling of a great room in the Carnegie Library in the city's North Side neighborhood.

The paintings disappeared during a 1960s renovation.

In 1944, while in Cherbourg, France, Elizabeth Black met Julian Black, a naval commander from Tennessee. They joked about their shared last name, and he wrote a popular song lyric in her notebook, "I'll be seeing you."

They married during the Christmas holidays that year, at the American Chapel in Paris. Family legend has it that they were the first American couple to do so there since D-Day. After the war ended, they sailed back to the United States and settled in Waynesboro, Va., where there wasn't much call for a portrait artist.

Elizabeth Black had two sons and helped her husband with his soft-drink business. After he died in 1956, she stayed in Virginia until their sons were old enough to take care of themselves. In 1963 she moved first to Berkeley, Calif., and then to Portland, Ore., where she resided until her death.

In that later portion of her life, John Black said, his mother began painting again, but it was never for the public.

He has the regrets of any grown son or daughter with a parent long gone — the regrets of anyone, really, who has lost someone and only afterward realizes the conversations that should have taken place but didn't.

He would like to open the footlocker with her.

"I wish she was all of a sudden sitting there as we opened it and I could question her and talk to her about it," he said. "And I could have done that prior to 1983."

His first reaction when he opened the footlocker, he said, was amazement at how well everything was preserved, nearly 70 years later. Because of that, he can share his mother's life and work.

"My goal all along was to tell people a really good story," he said. "And at the same time honor my mother for what she did."


VIDEO: The veteran who draws

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