Amy Whitaker and her patriotic portraits
Why one local artist lends her artistic skills to families of every Oklahoma armed serviceman and woman killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amy Whitaker doesn’t consider herself especially patriotic.
Although the American flag always flies at her Tulsa home.
Although this Fourth of July she and her family are visiting Philadelphia, the cradle of American independence, where they will tour historic sites.
So this local artist doesn’t describe her current art project as patriotic. She thinks of it as compassionate. She wants to draw an 11-inch-by-14-inch pencil portrait of every Oklahoma armed serviceman and woman killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and present the drawing as a gift to the family. She refers to these servicemen and women as “our fallen heroes.” She calls this art project Works of Heart. Whitaker received her first request for a portrait — a serviceman from Enid killed in action in 2006 — in early June and looks forward to receiving more.
How many Oklahomans serving in the U.S. military have died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? I understand the number is 85. Oklahoma has one of the highest mortality rates.
What inspired you to undertake this project? When I watched the TV news reports and saw their names scroll across the screen, I thought: They died keeping our world safe for my children and our future. Every one of them leaves a family and people who care about them. Maybe this is a way for me to give some comfort to those people.
Will you work from photographs? I would like to have as much information as the family would like to share. That will help me draw them more accurately — to capture their spirit. I would like to have the family’s favorite photograph, the one that they think best represents their loved one. But I would also like to have a military photograph to post on my Web site.
Do you come from a military family? I was born in Tanzania, East Africa, where my parents were both teachers. I lived there for six years. When I was in the seventh grade, I found out that my father actually was in the CIA, (working) undercover as a professor during our time in Tanzania.
Your medium is pencil, right? I work with a graphite pencil. I find pencil to be more dramatic and powerful than colors, which can have emotional values. I have worked in pastel and oil, but I think the spirit of the subject is better captured in black, white and gray.
Your degree (from the University of Kansas) is journalism and business communication. Not art, right? That’s right. And I have an MBA (from the University of Central Oklahoma). Being a stay-at-home mother of three and running a household is kind of like running a business, so I think I’m using that degree. I don’t have any formal art training, but I always wanted to draw. It is a relaxing hobby to me.
So how did you get from a hobby to this Works of Heart mission? One evening, when my husband was traveling on business, I was drinking a glass of wine and decided to try some sketching. I was amazed when my drawing — a beautiful African woman whose photograph provided my inspiration — suddenly came to life. At first, I wondered if it was just the wine, but the drawing actually looked good. I completed that drawing and gave it to my dad for his last birthday when he turned 69 in 2006. I have been drawing ever since.
Why do you describe this project as “compassionate”? My dad was traveling in Italy when he caught Legionnaires’ disease and died. A year later, my mother died of cancer. Suddenly, I had joined “the horrendous club (of orphans).” People tell me my portraits of their lost loved ones have given them peace and comfort. That’s what I want to do for the families of these fallen Oklahoma military personnel. It’s a passion. I believe it’s what I’m supposed to do with the talent God has given me.