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Chris Demarest brings World War II portraits to Jones Library

  • Chris Demarest paints mainly from black-and-white photographs taken during the war.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Chris Demarest paints mainly from black-and-white photographs taken during the war.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Artist Chris Demarest, left, talks with Gary Aho of Amherst, who had stopped by the Jones Library to see Demarest's exhibit, "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute," portraits of Americans, many of them local,  who served in World War II. Aho knew Joseph Langland of Amherst, one of Demarest's subjects. <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Artist Chris Demarest, left, talks with Gary Aho of Amherst, who had stopped by the Jones Library to see Demarest's exhibit, "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute," portraits of Americans, many of them local, who served in World War II. Aho knew Joseph Langland of Amherst, one of Demarest's subjects.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chris Demarest, who grew up in Amherst, will continue to work on site at the exhibit, which is on view through August at Jones Library in Amherst. <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Chris Demarest, who grew up in Amherst, will continue to work on site at the exhibit, which is on view through August at Jones Library in Amherst.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chris Demarest works on a painting in the Jones library as part of his national tour of called "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute which are  portraits of Americans who served in WWII. In the background is Craig Wilson of Shutesbury.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Chris Demarest works on a painting in the Jones library as part of his national tour of called "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute which are portraits of Americans who served in WWII. In the background is Craig Wilson of Shutesbury.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Demarest's portrait of Joseph Langland. After the war, Langland, a poet, founded the MFA for writers program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Demarest's portrait of Joseph Langland. After the war, Langland, a poet, founded the MFA for writers program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christ Demarest's Portrait of Dr. Robert Wood, whose daughter lives in Amherst. Demarest paints mainly from black-and-white photographs.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Christ Demarest's Portrait of Dr. Robert Wood, whose daughter lives in Amherst. Demarest paints mainly from black-and-white photographs.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chris Demarest talks with Norma Mackey of Montague about his paintings in the Jones library which are part of his national tour of called "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute which are  portraits of Americans who served in WWII.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Chris Demarest talks with Norma Mackey of Montague about his paintings in the Jones library which are part of his national tour of called "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute which are portraits of Americans who served in WWII.

    CAROL LOLLIS
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chris Demarest works on a painting in the Jones library as part of his national tour of called "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute which are  portraits of Americans who served in WWII.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Chris Demarest works on a painting in the Jones library as part of his national tour of called "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute which are portraits of Americans who served in WWII.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Demarest paints mainly from black-and-white photos taken during the war.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Demarest paints mainly from black-and-white photos taken during the war.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chris Demarest paints mainly from black-and-white photographs taken during the war.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Artist Chris Demarest, left, talks with Gary Aho of Amherst, who had stopped by the Jones Library to see Demarest's exhibit, "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute," portraits of Americans, many of them local,  who served in World War II. Aho knew Joseph Langland of Amherst, one of Demarest's subjects. <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Chris Demarest, who grew up in Amherst, will continue to work on site at the exhibit, which is on view through August at Jones Library in Amherst. <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Chris Demarest works on a painting in the Jones library as part of his national tour of called "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute which are  portraits of Americans who served in WWII. In the background is Craig Wilson of Shutesbury.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Demarest's portrait of Joseph Langland. After the war, Langland, a poet, founded the MFA for writers program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Christ Demarest's Portrait of Dr. Robert Wood, whose daughter lives in Amherst. Demarest paints mainly from black-and-white photographs.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Chris Demarest talks with Norma Mackey of Montague about his paintings in the Jones library which are part of his national tour of called "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute which are  portraits of Americans who served in WWII.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Chris Demarest works on a painting in the Jones library as part of his national tour of called "The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute which are  portraits of Americans who served in WWII.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Demarest paints mainly from black-and-white photos taken during the war.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

But Demarest, a 1969 graduate of Amherst Regional High School, never got many details about his father’s experience: His father, who died in 1989, didn’t talk much about it much, and to his young son, that was all in the past, anyway.

“The few photos we had of my dad from that time were in black and white, and growing up, I saw him in color every day,” Demarest said. “He was a guy who put on a suit and tie during the week and wore jeans on the weekend and mowed the lawn.”

But for the last few years, Demarest, a longtime illustrator of children’s books, has found himself immersed in WWII stories. He’s switched gears artistically to create an ever-growing exhibit of portraits of WWII veterans, both deceased and still living, based on photographs that friends, relatives and strangers have submitted to him.

After spending over a year working on and compiling these portraits near Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, Demarest, 62, has brought “The Greatest Generation: A Visual Tribute” to Jones Library in Amherst for the summer. Library staff say his work has created quite a buzz.

“There’s just been a real sense of energy ever since Chris arrived,” said Tevis Kimball, curator of special collections. “People are looking at the portraits, reading the stories, talking to Chris ... they’re sharing stories with him about their own family members” who served in the war.

For Demarest, who most recently lived in Washington, D.C., and before that in Boston, Vermont and New Hampshire, discovering the stories of the people he’s painted — he’s up to 70 portraits at this point — has been an emotional journey.

“I feel like I’m a conduit for all these memories people have of their fathers, their mothers, their grandparents,” he said. “And it’s been wonderful to talk to veterans about their experiences. The paintings have really struck a chord with some of them.”

He feels a certain urgency about the work.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about documenting the lives of veterans who are passing away more and more quickly these days.”

But Demarest has been so taken with the experience that he’s arranged to take the exhibit on an extended tour after it wraps up in Amherst in August. He’s lined up appearances for this fall and early next year in venues in Boston, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California and other spots. He receives a commission of $900 for each 16-by 20-inch oil painting, and is also seeking grants and donations to finance the effort.

“I knew I had to do this before I’d figured out how I might pay for it,” he said, with a laugh. He noted that he’s seeking additional funds “anywhere and anyway I can.”

Painting on site

On a recent morning in the Jones Library atrium, where Demarest’s paintings have been mounted, a stream of people moved among the portraits, done in rich, vibrant colors that recall those of paintings and ads from the WWII era. Some viewers bent over the text of the accompanying stories of the people that Demarest had included.

The faces on the portraits are all young, fresh and often smiling, a reminder of how many men in their early 20s or sometimes even younger flew planes and carried out other critical tasks. There’s one of Robert Demarest in the cockpit of his C-47, his head twisted backward to look at the photographer, a half-smile on his face and aviator sunglasses shielding his eyes; the old black-and-white photo the painting is based on is pinned just below.

Demarest was there to answer questions and chat with visitors. The artist had his easel set up in a corner of the hallway just outside the atrium.

“That was a big part of the project in Arlington, one I wanted to bring here, to paint on site,” he said. “I didn’t want to be tucked away in my studio for something like this.”

He was working on a painting of three U.S. airmen standing in front of a P-38 Lightning fighter-bomber, taken in 1944 at an airbase near Foggia, Italy, when Nate Budington of Amherst stopped by. Budington mentioned his own father had been a navigator on a B-29 bomber in missions over Japan but had rarely spoken about the experience of getting shot down in the Pacific.

“He went through a lot of trauma — saw some of his buddies get killed, got shot down one time and spent five days in a raft,” Budington said. “I think this exhibit is a great thing, a real testament to what these guys went through.”

Demarest has included portraits of other Amherst vets, like Joseph Langland, a poet and English professor who founded the MFA program for poets and writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the 1960s. The portrait shows Langland as a young army captain who came face to face with the Holocaust: He served as a post-war administrator to the survivors of a Nazi extermination camp at Buchenwald.

Demarest has worked exclusively from black-and-white photographs that people submitted to him or that he selected on his own. To transform them to color portraits, he deduces tone from the photos and also looks at pictures, illustrations and other WWII resources for reference.

“It’s important that I get the details right, from color to the drape of the uniforms,” he said.

His portraits run the gamut, from men who served in all the branches of service to women who served as nurses or in the WACs — the Women’s Army Corps. There are also famous faces, like former senators Bob Dole and the late Daniel Inouye, who first met in 1945 when they were both badly wounded during the Italian campaign.

After he had painted the portrait of Inouye, Demarest said, “I emailed Bob Dole and asked him if he’d like to be part of the exhibit, and about six days later a black-and-white photo arrived in the mail.”

Emotional highlights

Demarest’s engagement as a WWII portrait artist came in a somewhat roundabout fashion. A graduate of UMass who earned a degree in painting in 1977, he developed a career as an editorial cartoonist and a children’s book illustrator. In the mid-1990s, he also joined the volunteer fire department in the Vermont town where he was living, an experience that led him to write and illustrate an award-winning children’s book, “Firefighters A to Z.”

That book led to an opportunity to travel and work with the U.S. Coast Guard and with hurricane researchers to write children’s books on those action topics, such as flying into an actual hurricane. Then, two years ago, when he was a dinner guest at a Maryland home, he was captivated by a photo of another action figure, the host’s father — Griff Holland, a P-47 fighter pilot, who was posed jauntily by his machine during the Burma campaign of 1944-45.

He told his host he wanted to paint that picture.

“He ended up commissioning me to do it for his father’s 88th birthday,” Demarest said. “When he gave it to him, he said it was the first time he could remember seeing his father cry.”

Demarest decided he wanted to do more WWII portraits and got in touch with old friends via Facebook to ask them for photos. Once he had five finished portraits, he contacted the Women in Military Service to America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery and asked if they’d be interested in displaying the portraits and having him do more. Just a few days later, they invited him down, and he ended up spending a year there.

The exhibit has produced its share of emotional highlights. One came when Demarest took Griff Holland to see his portrait in the Arlington show and the two men met a Japanese-American woman looking at the painting. The woman thanked Holland for his service and gave him a paper origami heart, which Demarest said clearly touched the elderly pilot, who had held a grudge against the Japanese for many years after the war.

“He told me he was going to take it home and frame it,” Demarest said. “It was a real moment of reconciliation.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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