NICHOLAS C. KIRVEN BY KAZIAH HANCOCK
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
It was a riveting, life-changing moment. In March 2003, Utah painter Kaziah Hancock was surfing the radio dial looking for a better station when she landed on a talk show in which friends and family were remembering Marine Staff Sgt. James W. Cawley, who was killed in Iraq. For Hancock, the world stopped and the war came home to her living room. “Tears were flowing down my face,” she remembers. “Here was this beautiful man, a wonderful asset to the community, and he was gone.”
Hancock couldn’t do anything about Cawley’s death, but as an artist, she realized, she had something to offer his loved ones. “I decided to contact the family and let them know I wanted present a portrait of their son as a gift,” she says.
Today, five years later, Hancock, 60, has painted more than 500 oil portraits of American servicemen and women who have died during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of the paintings are given to the families free of charge. Last year, Hancock received the Gold Medal of Merit from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which is presented to individuals in recognition of exceptional service rendered to their country.
Initially, Hancock painted portraits of only the fallen service members who were from Utah, tracking down their next of kin through newspaper articles. But eventually this geographical limitation made no sense to her. “Do I appreciate the man from Texas or New York any less than the man from Utah?” she asked herself. As she expanded her artistic services to include fallen members of the military from throughout the United States, her reputation grew.
DANE R. BALCON BY KAZIAH HANCOCK
These days the Department of Defense includes a flyer about Hancock’s portraits when the belongings of the servicemen and women are returned to their families. She now has four hand-picked artists who assist her in creating the portraits: Layne Brady, JoAnn Musser, and Ann Marie Oborn are based in Utah; Clancy DeVries is in California. Together, the five artists have painted portraits of more than 1,150 service members.
Until recently Hancock and the other artists painted the portraits gratis. Hancock managed to get by, she says, from the sales of her other fine artworks and by raising goats and chickens in Manti, a rural community about 65 miles south of Provo. As of September, the artists started receiving some compensation from the non-profit Project Compassion Soldier Fund (www.heropaintings.com).
Requests for the portraits are limited to a member of the immediate family—parent or spouse—who sends a photograph of their loved one to Project Compassion. Families often share letters and newspaper articles with the artist. One man’s parents wrote that he liked the band Pink Floyd; instead of portraying him in his uniform, Hancock painted the young man wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt and sporting headphones.
Hancock admits her mission isn’t always easy. “It’s so painful to look at the photographs,” she says. What keeps her going is knowing that she is honoring extraordinary people. “I don’t know whether we should be [in Iraq] or not. I can’t be the judge,” Hancock says. “But these soldiers were just trying to make the world a better place, and they gave it all they had.”
She is represented by Utah Artists Hands, Salt Lake City, UT; Terra Nova Gallery, Provo, UT; www.kaziahthegoatwoman.com.
Featured in November 2008