If a picture is worth a thousand words, what then is the value of a hand-drawn portrait?
It’s powerful comfort for the families of fallen U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. That at least is what they tell the incredibly productive artist who draws the portraits for free.
Correspondent Tom Banse has this profile of a gifted Vietnam Vet with new mission.
Michael Reagan leans over his drawing table to work on portrait number 1251 of a fallen soldier. On the illustration board, a young man in dress uniform takes form.
Reagan shades the creases in the beret -- the faint smile on the face. The professional artist pauses frequently to sharpen his pencils -- and only infrequently to erase.
Michael Reagan: “I had an art teacher who once said, if you have to erase, you might as well throw the piece away.”
Reagan has a formal boot camp photograph provided by the soldier’s family to guide him. His detailed and realistic pencil portrait will take about five hours to complete. He tries to finish two per day.
The Edmonds, Washington man has been in the portrait business for four decades. He’s done well for himself drawing the pope, six U.S. presidents, 137 Playboy Playmates, and countless celebrities and sports stars. But nowadays, the Vietnam combat vet draws U.S. war casualties almost exclusively.
Michael Reagan: “I’ve always felt I had some debt because I was able to come home. I just couldn’t define it.”
Then four years ago, a young woman from Boise called to commission a portrait of her husband. He was a combat medic who’d been hit and killed by shrapnel at the beginning of the Iraq War. Reagan offered to do the portrait for free. He recalls word-for-word what the widow said when she called again later.
Michael Reagan: “She said, ‘Yesterday I received your portrait. I pulled the picture out of the envelope. The minute I saw my husband’s eyes, I was able to connect with it. I don’t know why.’ And she said, ‘I was able to share all those things that I’d been holding inside since he died.' She said, ‘I called because last night I slept all night for the first time in a year.’ And she said, ‘I wanted to say thank you.’ I looked at my wife and said, ‘Now we’ve got to do ‘em all.’ That’s how it started.”
Reagan began reaching out to the families of the fallen to offer his artistic services. But he says he didn’t want to get too emotionally involved.
Michael Reagan: “I didn’t want to meet families, not because I didn’t care about them because I do, just the opposite. But I didn’t know if their emotions and my emotions would be too much emotion for me to handle.”
That rule ended with portrait number 32. The drawing portrays Army Lt. Ben Colgan of Seattle. He was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2003.
Relatives urged the soldier’s grieving father, Joe Colgan, to request a portrait. Colgan says initially he was hesitant.
Joe Colgan: “I thought, well I’m going to pass on this one, you know.”
Colgan eventually came around, but he insisted on meeting the artist. Colgan describes himself as an anti-war activist. Michael Reagan prefers flag and eagle t-shirts. Yet the two have become close friends.
Today, Colgan clutches the pencil portrait of his son to his chest. The young soldier grins from behind the glass. His eyes sparkle. Colgan says this portrait has become his “most precious possession.”
Joe Colgan: “I know there is a healing effect to it -- to the person that receives it if they want it, you know. I was just kind of overwhelmed with that. I mean it’s kind of unexplainable. But I mean it’s there. It’s still there.”
The artist says as committed as he is to drawing these portraits, they wear him down.
Michael Reagan: “It’s incredibly hard sometimes. There are times where I walk and I’m crying the entire time I’m walking, but I have to do this.”
The pace of American casualties in Iraq has slowed markedly in recent months. But the portrait artist says he still has a tremendous backlog. Michael Reagan says he’s prepared to keep drawing until the war's end or he’s not breathing anymore; whichever comes first.
Image and text by Oregan Public Broadcasting, USA