In her San Francisco studio, artist Emily Prince quietly continues a work-in-progress, her vast memorial to U.S. troops whose lives were lost in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. The artwork she’s created, completely by hand, consists of thousands of individual, wallet-size portraits, finely drawn in graphite, that, when arranged on a wall, create a very large map of America.
Conceived by Prince on November 4, 2004, the day after the last presidential election, her project American Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan (but Not including the Wounded, nor the Iraqis, nor the Afghanis) was prominently displayed at the 52nd Venice Biennale, the historic and prestigious international art festival held in Italy last summer through fall. Prince, then 26, was one of the youngest artists invited to participate. “I was stunned,” she says. “I never thought my work would be in it at any point, and certainly not now.”
Before leaving for Venice, she confessed some fears regarding reception, but reports Prince, “People were so kind to me there. I met artists from several continents who were directly kind to me about my work.” Her apprehensions about physically installing the work there (“because it’s such a large piece and the size is always changing — I wasn’t even sure that it would fit”) quickly dissipated as an eager crew composed of artist Shaun O’ Dell (her husband), two Italian art students, a gallery rep from New York, and a Greek journalist who just happened to be going through the gallery helped her pin the portraits in place (to specific locations representing their hometowns), finishing well ahead of time.
During the 10 days she spent there, Prince was pleased to see such attentive crowds viewing the work, including a group of women janitors who paused each evening to study the portraits. She also had some time to herself, to view pieces by other artists. “When I saw their work, I was just amazed to be among them,” says Prince. “It felt like a great privilege to have the experience not just of being in the show but seeing it too.”
Committed to the project, for as long as the war continues, Prince makes weekly visits to The Military Times, an online memorial site, where casualties, as confirmed by U.S. Central Command, are listed and photographs and biographical details can often be found. She saves the information she finds there in a journal. She uses 4 x 3 inch sheets of vellum for the portraits, in colors meant to correspond to the race of each soldier, as a way to document racial demographics. Her project also includes a chronology of military deployment and casualties.
Most moving are portraits on which she has included remembrances from family and friends of the soldiers. For example, a private first class from Troy Alabama, 21, is remembered by his sister as a “big teddy bear” of a brother who “would do anything for you.” Another portrait shows a 19-year-old service woman from Davenport, Iowa, who “was determined in everything she did” and wrote to her parents that “being deployed was one of the hardest things.” A high school teacher remembers a serviceman, 18, from Paradise, California, who was a “deep thinker” and excelled at math and physics, “who had a bright future as an engineer.”
Prince, who grew up in the Sierras in Gold Run (pop.125), says her artworks (including an exhibit called Familiar at the Eleanor Harwood Gallery in San Francisco in which she catalogued all the hats, all the lamps, and other items in her apartment) share common threads: they map her environment and focus on things, one at a time. “It’s the way I look at the world,” she says. Spending time with each soldier’s face is her way of engaging with the information on a personal level “somewhat akin to prayer.”
Though the portraits are a large part of her practice, Prince devotes most of her time to the MFA program at Berkeley, where she’s been studying with Ann Walsh, Justine Taylor, and Brody Reiman, faculty in Art Practice whom she calls “very supportive.” With an undergraduate degree in studio art and psychology from Stanford, she chose graduate school at Berkeley because she had been questioning her work and needed “a safe place to experiment.” She also wanted to try her hand at teaching here. Fall semester, she taught an introductory art class to 26 undergrads and found that she “thoroughly loved it.” In May Prince will present a new work, using animation to show passage of time, in the MFA Exhibit on campus.
See more of Emily’s artwork:
Emily Prince photograph: © Michael Winokur Photography
—by Lisa Harrington (originally published in The Graduate magazine, Spring 2008)