Josh Baker was a character, and even when it came time to the serious business of posing for a military portrait, his personality shone through.
“You can see he has a bit of a kink…or something playful,” said Karen Good, after looking at an oil paint rendering of the young corporal she once knew while it was at the Kelowna leg of the Portraits of Honour tour.
“The likeness is unbelievable; when I saw it, I was just waiting for him to say something.”
Good’s son Travis was close with Baker, and they both served in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
Travis continued on to do two tours of duty, but Baker died in a training accident outside Kandahar on Feb. 12, 2010.
He’s one of seven friends the soldier lost. Also commemorated on the mural is private David Byers, who was killed in 2006 while on foot patrol in Panjwaii, leaving behind a young bride and unborn child.
It was the first time Good had seen the men commemorated in this way, and the combination of faces she remembers fondly and lives cut short was overwhelming. “They were proud to be in the military,” she said, welling up as she thanked artist Dave Sopha for the work he’s done.
It was an emotional moment, and one that Sopha has encountered over and over again as he’s toured the country with the mural.
“Every day, at every spot I have family members who had loved ones,” he said, admitting the pent-up emotions released at each stop has taken an emotional toll, but one he willingly pays.
“I’ve had soldiers say, ‘You brought my buddy back. I could finally say goodbye.’”
Some have thanked him for immortalizing their loved ones through his homage, while others have just been grateful that faces have been put to names they read in the news.
All in all, it’s a reaction beyond what Sopha hoped for when he holed up in his studio and started the gargantuan project of immortalizing Canada’s military causalities in Afghanistan.
“Two and a half years ago I was watching the news, like most who had a loved one in Afghanistan,” he said.
“Then, Dec. 5, 2008, I read that 100 Canadian troops had been lost in Afghanistan… I was happy (my nephew) wasn’t one of them, but I realized I had 100 postage-sized faces looking at me and they all had someone missing them.”
So he went to work.
On a canvas that stretches 10 feet tall by 40 feet wide, Sopha spent 6,500 hours recreating the faces of 155 Canadian soldiers, sailors and aircrew who lost their lives in Afghanistan.
“I start by laying out the size, then I go directly to the eyes and spend two or three hours,” he said.
“They give me a feeling what a guy is like and who they really were.”
The mural is touring across Canada in a specialized mobile display trailer, and organizers expect to raise more than $1.5 million, which will go to the Military Families Fund.
That fund was established in April 2007 by Canada’s former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, to assist families of the fallen and the thousands of military personnel who return home with physical or emotional injuries.
For more information, or to donate go to www.portraitsofhonour.ca or visit www.kincanada.ca.