Painting Cindy


Several weeks ago Cindy Sheehan came to Maine to speak at the WERU Full Circle Fair. My partner Gail & I had the privilege & honor of having Cindy stay with us. I had been in touch with her by email for months about painting her portrait. So, I was not expecting some of her characteristics: the high sweet voice contrasting with the toughness of her words – like sugary icing on a cake of steel; her gentle, calm, humorous manner encasing an absolute determination to hammer meaning and justice out of the unnecessary death of her son Casey in Iraq. She was self-conscious & apprehensive about my desire to paint her portrait, though, saying she's never seen a good picture of herself. But she told me that when she looked at the other people in the Americans Who Tell The Truth portrait series, saw what company she was joining, she wept with humility and gratitude.

Painting a portrait is a curious business. You might think that getting the likeness is the hard thing. It's not. After one has been painting for awhile, it's not really that difficult to reproduce the correct slope of the eyes, the idiosyncratic architecture of a nose, the subtle topography of that crevice between the nose & the upper lip or at the corners of the mouth. The challenge is not to accept a likeness that coarsens the individual or caricatures her, that merely is emblematic of the person the way the word "tree" is emblematic of a real, living, particular oak. An artist wants to capture something of the complex emotions and real character of the subject. That "something" which conveys respect for and honors her struggles, determination, and courage. Grief and anger and love.

After Cindy left Maine, she drove to Rhode Island and back to Massachusetts for speaking engagements, then headed for Dallas to speak at the Veterans for Peace Conference. I was already at work on her portrait, working from photos I had taken of her as she stood by a window in our living room, the left side of her face lighted, the right in shadow. From the road she emailed me when she heard the news that 20 U.S. soldiers from Cleveland had been killed in two days in Iraq. Her anguish was intense. Something had to be done. Something to stop this war. Something to stop families from having to go through what she was going through. It was at that point that she decided to go to Crawford & demand that Bush talk with her. I already had painted her sharp, blue eyes to the point that they were looking back at me from the canvas, talking to me about the fierceness of her quest, the eyelids red from weeping, grey-blue and ochre circles underneath from exhaustion, and an inchoate knowledge taking shape – the knowledge that Cindy already had, but that I was learning as I painted and tried to understand the look in those eyes: the knowledge that she could not be intimidated or diverted, that the spin doctors and hate-mongers could belittle and disparage her to no avail. The eyes had no fear. They had a clarity of purpose that was at once sad, defiant, and calm. It reminded me of the look in Fannie Lou Hamer's eyes when she said, "But if I fall, I'll fall five feet, four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I'm not backing off."

Many people in the media have tried to do to Cindy exactly what I wanted to avoid – coarsen or caricature. I heard a woman patronizingly psychologize that Cindy was prolonging her grief process by this public display – as though what Cindy is trying to do is eradicate her grief. People who say things like that are purposely refusing to honor Cindy's anger. If Casey had died in a war necessary to defend the United States, and a war presented to the people honestly, none of us would have ever heard of Cindy Sheehan. Casey's death would have been a noble sacrifice, one which would have been terrible to bear for the family, but full of meaning and justice. Casey died for lies, so there is anger burning at the core of Cindy's grief. Those who refuse to admit her anger, try to neuter her cause.

This same woman on the radio went on to say that she was sure that Cindy would one day regret the derogatory things she had said about her country. That woman was purposely muddying Cindy's portrait. Cindy is not defaming her country, she is attacking an administration that has defamed it by abusing the ideals of this country, lying to the people, betraying its soldiers, killing her son. The woman on the radio wanted to paint a portrait of Cindy as a poor, misguided mother who would eventually rue the day that she had spoken so harshly from her grief. Cindy is telling the truth, and the people who have told the lies don't want you to hear it. Only in truth is there patriotism.

A few nights ago Cindy called me from outside her tent in Crawford. Again, the disarming, sweet voice. She was relaxed but ecstatic. A miracle every day, she said, speaking of the people who have come to her support, the momentum building around her, and the rainbow after that evening's rain. The criticism from the right was not bothering her. A man whose son had also been killed in Iraq had come to protest against her. Instead, he had found the cross with his son's name on it in the field of crosses set up there in Crawford for all the American dead. He sat on the ground in front of that cross and wept in the arms of Cindy's friend Ann Wright. Later he had a beer with Cindy and told her he loved her. This is the power of accepting what common ground we share.

This moment is hers, she is wearing it like a suit of clothes she may have dreamed as a child that she was destined to wear. When she was here in Maine she said that for the first time in her adult life she is sleeping well, and she knows it's because she's doing the right thing. Her action is in harmony with her deepest belief. It's sadly ironic when one's actions and deeds are brought into accord by the death of one's child. Cindy is doing what William Sloane Coffin advises, "Improve the quality of your suffering." And now, camped out in Crawford, demanding that the president answer her questions about why her son was killed, she is holding a mirror up to him and to the whole country. What do we see there? A just cause? Or a bloody, oily smudge of deceit.

In her talk at the VFP Conference before gong to Crawford she said, "I don't want him [Bush] to exploit the honor of my son and others to continue the killing. They sent these honorable people to die, and they are so dishonorable themselves." Cindy said, "You [Bush] tell me the truth. You tell me that my son died for oil. You tell me that my son died to make your friends rich. You tell me that my son died to spread the cancer of Pax Americana, imperialism in the Middle East. You tell me that, you don't tell me my son died for freedom and democracy."

Later in the same speech, Cindy said, "Another thing that I'm doing – my son was killed in 2004, so I'm not paying my taxes for 2004. If I get a letter from the IRS, I'm gonna say, you know what, this war is illegal; this is why this war is illegal. This war is immoral; this is why this war is immoral. You killed my son for this. I don't owe you anything. And if I live to be a million, I won't owe you a penny.

"And I want them to come after me, because unlike what you've been doing with the war resistance, I want to put this frickin' war on trial. And I want to say, u2018You give me my son, and I'll pay your taxes.'

"It's up to us," she said, "the people, to break immoral laws and resist. As soon as the leaders of a country lie to you, they have no authority over you."

Cindy ended her speech by saying, "I got an email the other day and it said, u2018Cindy if you didn't use so much profanity …. there's people on the fence that get offended.'

"And you know what I said? u2018You know what? You know what, god damn it? How in the world is anybody still sitting on that fence?'

"If you fall on the side that is pro-George and pro-war, you get your ass over to Iraq, and take the place of somebody who wants to come home. And if you fall on the side that is against this war and against George Bush, stand up and speak out."

With words like those Cindy Sheehan has painted a very accurate portrait of herself, her anger, her frustration, her determination to give meaning to Casey's death, her implicit belief that if the American people know the truth, they will do the right thing. Many people would now edit & censor her words, pull her teeth, make of her a grief struck pawn of the left. The degree to which they attack her is the degree to which the power of her truth terrifies them. I have merely tried to paint the truth of who she is. This sad, strong woman is offering America an opportunity to right itself. Rosa Parks once made the same offer. We would be fools not to take it.

The quote on her portrait says, "George, … your reckless and wanton foreign policies killed my son, Spc. Casey Austin Sheehan, in the illegal and unjust war on Iraq. Helping to bring about your political downfall will be the most noble accomplishment of my life, and it will bring justice for my son and the hundreds of other brave Americans and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis your lies have killed.

August 20, 2005