In 2010, John Black and his wife Kay of Germantown, Tennessee received an unexpected surprise: a trunk, which had been stored, unexamined, for decades in a family member’s garage in California. Inside they found his mother’s footlocker filled with a 100 images of her sketches, photographs, scrapbooks, news clippings, and other memorabilia, launching John on a journey to meet this remarkable woman who had been his mother.
Portraits for the Home Front: The Story of Elizabeth Black follows John on this journey and creates a portrait of a patriotic artist who created wonderful memories for men overseas and who sent invaluable gifts to their loved ones at home.
Elizabeth Black was an up-and-coming artist in 1930s Pittsburgh. Prominent Pittsburgh families commissioned her work for portraits of children and other family members, garnering her more recognition among the community. Her crowning achievement in Pittsburgh was being selected by the Carnegie Library to paint 25 larger-than-life portraits of literary greats such as Longfellow, Dickinson, Thoreau, and others.
Leaving a promising art career behind, Pittsburgh native Elizabeth Black volunteered with the American Red Cross during World War II. During this time, she proposed a fascinating plan to sketch more than 1,000 portraits of soldiers, sailors, and airmen in England, France, Luxemburg, Holland, Germany, and Belgium. Miss Black sketched her way across Europe, completing as many as a dozen portraits a day. Every soldier signed their sketches, often including endearments to loved ones back home.
Seven decades later, her son John contacted WKNO to see if there might be interest in the story, and was assisted in connecting with producers at WQED in his mother’s hometown of Pittsburgh where her story really began. He then worked with WQED to create a documentary and locate the families of the soldiers, whose lives Elizabeth Black touched.
The documentary explores Miss Black’s lost art career, features interviews with elderly veterans who encountered the artist on the battlefield, and captures memorable scenes of amazed and appreciative families finally receiving portraits that never arrived. Through social media, a separate interactive component of the project, Finding Elizabeth’s Soldiers is working to make sure the 100 portraits in the Black collection reach the families that might not have them. An online gallery of the drawings can be viewed at www.wqed.org/elizabethblack, and is continually being updated as the veterans’ images are identified.
Created by the Emmy Award-winning team of writer/producer David Solomon and photographer/editor Paul Ruggieri, with narration by Michael Bartley, Portraits for the Home Front has already garnered honors in 2014 including the national Gabriel Award, and the regional Edward R. Murrow Award.