Monday, 10 October 2011

October 11, 2011
By: Diane Henry

Donnie Greenslade was speechless as he viewed the portrait of his son mounted in a transport truck that was playing gentle music on Saturday.  Pte. David Greenslade’s face is among 157 portraits of soldiers who have died while serving in Afghanistan that are now travelling across the country.

When artist David Sopha opened the newspaper one morning back in 2008 he was taken aback by the one hundred tiny faces starring back at him. They were postage-sized photos of all the Canadian soldiers killed to date in the war in Afghanistan.

“As an artist I looked into their eyes and got to know them,” he said. “That moment was emotional and I knew I had to do something.”

That something, was painting life-size portraits of every soldier who made the supreme sacrifice on a massive mural that is making its way across Canada. The Portraits of Honour National Tour is in Moncton today, after stopping in Saint John yesterday and CFB Gagetown on Saturday.  

The tour began September 1st in Alberta after a huge send off in May from the Prime Minister and Governor General.  It is being sponsored by Kin Canada and is being escorted by motorcades of veterans, police, RCMP, and other groups who support the military.

The 50 foot long and 10 foot tall mural displays the faces of 157 souls who lost their lives while serving in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001—including 10 New Brunswick natives.   

The parents of Pte. David Greenslade viewed their son’s painting while it was on display in Saint John at the Barack Green Armouries.  Pte. Greenslade, 20, was killed on Easter Sunday in 2007, along with five other soldiers, when a roadside bomb exploded as they drove through irrigation ditches in Afghanistan.

Greenslade’s mother, Laurie, said it was a touching gift.

“It brings back memories of that day he died and the day he deployed [for Afghanistan],” she said.  Laurie recalled the moment her son left on his mission overseas and the last thing David’s sergeant said to her: “we’ll bring them back.”

“It's probably the worst duty you could ask us to do, to be honest,” explained Colonel Ryan Jestin about his obligation to tell family members that someone they love has been killed while serving in Afghanistan. 

He spoke briefly with reporters in the spring of 2007 following a moving funeral service for Pte. Greenslade. Hundreds had gathered at the Main Street Baptist Church in Saint John to pay their final respects.

“When you have a family member overseas, you’re always watching the papers,” said Sopha.  Having a nephew in Afghanistan when he first began painting the mural gave him a further sense of urgency to ensure there was a legacy for the soldiers.

“I felt I needed to do something that would last forever.”

Sopha, an airbrush artist, turned to oil paints to ensure the portraits would last hundreds of years. Airbrush paintings will eventually fade, but as Sopha is learning, so will oil paint if it is exposed to sunlight and flash photography—something he encourages.  In order to preserve the portraits in top condition when they’re eventually placed in a museum, Sopha said he will have to paint another coat over the entire mural.  

The mural also has 82,136 poppy petals and Sopha wants to paint one for every fallen soldier from WWI to today—about 116,000 poppy petals.

Along with the military personnel, Sopha later plans to add the faces of Glyn Berry, a Canadian diplomat killed in Afghanistan in 2006 and Michelle Lang, a Calgary Herald reporter who died while covering the conflict in December 2009.

Sopha said he wants as many people as possible to see the portraits so that they can honour the memory of all the military personnel who have died while serving their country.   “Everyone should be respectful of our military,” he said.  

Sopha has committed to keep painting until Canada no longer has troops in Afghanistan.

The Portraits of Honour National Tour wraps up December 10th after making further stops in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba.

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