OWATONNA — From his studio on the south end of town, artist Al Smith travels across the country and back in time, researching the stories of individual soldiers and spending hours recreating their likenesses in pencil.
For his latest series, Smith was inspired in part by the annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast this fall, where speaker Karen Vaughn told the story of her son’s time and death in the U.S. Navy SEALs.
“She gave such a dynamic presentation,” recalled Smith. “She shared her life, her faith journey, the death of her son and her grief journey with us.”
Smith said when he came home from the event and shared the story with his wife, she immediately asked when he was going to start a series on the SEALs.
“I began it that afternoon,” he laughed. “That was at the end of November, and I finished it two weeks ago.”
Featuring drawings of men who were killed in action, Smith’s new series “THE SEALS” is the fifth in a line of military-themed projects the artist has been undertaking since 2017. At first, he started with a program on the Vietnam War, after a friend and veteran asked Smith to draw his likeness.
“As I was making the drawing, it took me back to my childhood when I spent a lot of time drawing with a pencil. I drew everything from ages 6 to 16, and then from the age of about 16 until two years ago, I hadn’t made any pencil drawings,” recalled Smith. After the first portrait, he said he felt an incredible momentum that has kept him at the drafting table ever since.
‘What I’m called to do’
After his initial series on Vietnam, Smith created projects entitled “War Heroes,” “Women of War” and “WWII Iconic,” which each consists of a number of pencil drawings — sometimes of individuals, sometimes of groups of soldiers or famous scenes from history.
For each piece, Smith begins with a photo cropped to the desired size. He then prints two copies, one of which he rubs charcoal on the back of, lays over a blank sheet of paper, and traces the outline of the image to transfer it to his canvas. The second, he uses for reference as he goes.
Still, while the pictures help him get the general layout of the work, he said each new image holds some challenge for him to overcome.
In many of the portraits, these obstacles have to do with the texture of soldiers’ clothing. Smith laughed that he had to learn how to draw terrycloth and sheepskin. For choppy water in a scene from World War II, he explained that he used the flat head of a carpenter’s pencil to convey all the tiny crests in the water.
“It’s all trial and error,” he added, of finding solutions to each new problem. And it’s a challenge that, in general, he welcomes.
The hardest part of any drawing, he added, is the eyes — which he always starts with, saying if the eyes are off, the whole drawing will be off. Smith recalled that getting the look of Winston Churchill right in a portrayal of the Yalta Conference was one hurdle that was unusually frustrating.
He recalled telling his wife that he was going to give up on the drawing. Then, sitting and watching television together, he remembered something — he hadn’t said a prayer before starting in on the piece.
“Before I start any one of my drawings, I always say a little prayer. I just ask the Lord to coordinate my hands and my eyes,” Smith explained.
When talking about his knack for making each piece resemble almost exactly the photo on which it was based, Smith also returned to his religion. Although years of drawing nonstop as a child — coupled with an education at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design — helped him on his way, Smith is firm in the belief that he was given a talent.
“I do this because it’s what I’m called to do,” he explained.
‘Trying to keep their memory alive’
As Smith shares his series at events around the area, each piece comes with a story behind it. He hasn’t only found a photo to commit to paper — he’s also found a biography or a historical episode that he can retell along with the drawing.
“Their stories are all over the internet, but nobody’s going to stop and look them up and read them. I’m telling their story, trying to keep their memory alive,” said Smith. “It’s all about the drawing and the story about the person, the biography.”
For his series on Navy SEALs, Smith said after meeting Vaughn at the prayer breakfast, he again researched online and ultimately found a database of all SEALs who had been killed in action. From there, he looked for the clearest photos he could find before gathering what information he could about each soldier.
He was also able to get a photo of Vaughn’s son, which he used for one of the portraits.
In addition to sharing the individual stories through the new program, Smith said one of the things that has been most interesting for him when doing his own research has been the intensity of the preparation that each SEAL team undergoes — as well as the danger of being a member of the unit.
With each series, Smith said he felt drawing individuals and scenes was a way he could honor the men and women who serve in the military.
“I felt like it was something I could do for real heroes,” he explained.
Smith’s most recent program, “THE SEALS,” has been booked at the Exchange Club at the Eagles on Feb. 20 and the artist is in the process of trying to get it shown elsewhere, as well. In doing his presentations, Smith said he typically brings eight to 10 of his drawings, lays them out on tables for guests to view, and then delivers a presentation on his history, process and the people in his art.
For additional information, Smith can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.