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Art&Seek Q&A: Artist Phil Taylor of the American Fallen Soldiers Project

by Stephen Becker 25 Nov 2009 11:26 AM

Frisco artist Phil Taylor talks about his devotion to painting portraits of troops killed in action and what it’s like to present them to the families of the fallen in this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:


Army Sgt. James Regan

Army Sgt. James Regan

“I’ve sat down several times a day, for the past week, trying to write an email to THANK YOU for the incredible gift of Jimmy’s portrait you presented on Sunday.  I just could not come up with the right words to convey our gratitude … then I realized, there SIMPLY aren’t any words to express how grateful we are!!!!  Jimmy now hangs over the fireplace in our family room, this location allows everyone to see him on a daily basis, and even have conversations with him….”

That’s an excerpt from a letter that Frisco artist Phil Taylor received recently from the family of Army Sgt. James Regan. The Manhasset, N.Y. native was killed in Iraq on Feb. 9, 2007 when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle. As part of his American Fallen Soldiers Project, Taylor painted Regan’s portrait and presented it in person to his family on Nov. 15. It’s the 50th such portrait (click here to see all of them) that Taylor has painted since 2006 of military personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq

phil“It’s a way of consoling, and it’s a way of developing a relationship through art that makes a difference for those families whose lives have been profoundly changed,” Taylor said in a phone conversation this week.

He talks further about how the project started, the 70-100 hour process of creating each portrait and what it means to him to deliver his art to grieving families across the country in this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:

Art&Seek: When did you get the idea to start painting these portraits?

Phil Taylor: I lost a friend, a guy I grew up with out on Eagle Mountain Lake. His name was Captain Blake Russell. Blake was killed July 22, 2006. So when Blake went down, I went to his funeral, and there were just under 3,000 people who attended in Fort Worth. I saw how broken the family was, and I knew that my art with the right application could make a difference for the Russell family. … I got a call from his father, Ron, who I’ve known since I was a little boy. And he was crying, and said he felt like the essence of his son had returned home.

A&S: Just last week you delivered your 50th portrait. What kind of backorder do you have?

P.T.: We’re at just over 200, and we get two to four more every week. If there’s any part of it that’s somewhat disappointing – but I’ve already reconciled that – it’s that one man cannot paint 5,054 soldiers, which is currently what the fallen attrition rate is right now between Iraq and Afghanistan, over a lifetime. I could never paint that many by myself. On the waiting list, we have some that have been on there for two years. We move around, based upon the needs of the family … Some families are in a greater crisis, where the portrait has extreme value and makes such a profound impact on their healing process.

A&S: With the high demand, have you considered adding any other artists to the project?

P.T.: We did. We were going to branch off the United States in sections. And we did get a lot of requests from artists. … But I have certain questions that I ask, like, “Why do you want to do it?” And that’s eliminated most of them – they don’t even answer question one. And then the quality, the execution has been a great concern. The families expect their soldier to be just right. There’s probably many, many other artists, who are certainly more museum-quality portrait artists than I am. But there seems to be a life-like quality that happens and a connection that occurs that makes a big difference for the families for the portraits and the soldiers I paint.

A&S:  What is your background in painting?

P.T.: I’ve been an artist for 28 years. I’ve painted for Keith Urban, I’ve painted Nicole Kidman, Janine Turner was a client, Larry Gatlin, Nick Price – the professional golfer. So I’ve painted for some high-profile folks.

A&S:  How has the experience of painting these portraits affected how you watch and read the news as it relates to the continuing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq?

P.T.: As far as my perspective on the war, I don’t have any. I am a service. I’m apolitical. We have no agenda – we’re not anti-war or pro-war. We’re pro-service to the families who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to our country. That’s our mission. We stay razor focused on the needs of the families and respectively honoring the soldier to make sure Americans are reminded that we’ve lost 5,000 and counting, including the 13 that we lost in Killeen. I suppose if I had an opinion, or something to say that is a challenge, it’s not the war that challenges me – because the families are strong, and 99 percent of them are absolutely sure that their husband, son, brother, daughter died for just cause taking the bad guys on over there, and I’m good with that. My disappointment and somewhat frustration is here at home. I know there are families within our communities – in Frisco where I live and across Dallas – these guys and these families deserve a lot more than one night on the news, knowing they lost someone.

A&S:  As you are painting the portraits of these fallen soldiers, what do you think about?

P.T.: I think about making them just right. … My studio’s not open to the public, and there’s a lot of talking. There’s a lot of kinda grinding that goes on in the process of trying to bring them to life. Sometimes when I feel like there’s some resistance, there are some conversations. And some of them are pretty aggressive between the soldier and myself. But that always seems to yield, and in the end, I always seem to win. I think that it is that experience of believing and knowing that they’re there with me that is also part of the process of taking them back home.

A&S: What’s it like when you present the portrait to the familiy?

P.T.: Overwhelming. The first five, I couldn’t speak because I was crying so bad. It was my first personal contact with Gold Star Families, and you know the grief and the sacrifice and the pain that they live with for the rest of their lives. And when you initially experience that, it’s overwhelming. But over the years, and 45 [portraits] later, I’ve learned to discipline myself and stay in control, because it’s my job not only to paint them but to share their story. … When I slide the soldier from the box and put him on the easel, to watch their reaction, I would say is unbelievable. They speak of him, saying, “That’s my son. That’s him.” They talk in the first person. In a real way, for the first time they see him, feel him, in a life-changing experience. That is the inspiration that makes you go back and do it again, man.

A&S:  How does it make you feel to be able to provide this service?

P.T.: I would say I’m humbled at times. I would say I’m sometimes split between humility and a feeling of, “Can I do it again?”

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.

  • Lamar Skarda

    I have had the privilege of being at one of the ceremonies when a portrait of a fallen soldier was presented to the family. It is done in a gratious tribute to that lost soul and I am sure it brings great comfort to the family. Phil is the finest portrait artist I have ever seen, he is able to capture the essence of the individual he is painting so the family can remember them as they were in life.