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Honoring Our Heroes

Artist Jeanine Hill-Soldner immortalizes U.S. vets in her Portraits of American Veterans Project.

It was only natural that Jeanine Hill-Soldner would found the Portraits of American Veterans Project (PAVP), a 20-painting exhibit featuring regional American veterans.

After all, the Quantico, Va., native grew up in a military family that included her late father Sgt. Maj. Dan L. Hill, a 30-year Recon Marine who served in World War II, Korea and completed two tours in Vietnam.

“To heal from the loss of my father in 1993, I created a large collection of oil paintings titled ‘Memories of an Era’ that have exhibited at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago and other museums and galleries nationwide,” stated Hill-Soldner, who’s called Algonquin home for almost 20 years.

With such a remarkable response from Memories of an Era, and through volunteering with the Vet Art Project in Chicago, Hill-Soldner was compelled to continue exploring this topic by beginning her first PAVP portrait in August 2009.

“I hope that through the PAVP to create a visual archive representing new art about war that speak to the veterans, and the viewers of the humanity of the warrior and the role of the citizen soldiers in our families and communi-ties,” she said. “I want to honor the generations of men and women who have sacrificed so much to protect our freedoms and give a voice to their stories and personal struggles while serving in the military, and then returning home. I also hope to bring the PAVP by way of  a  traveling  exhibit  to  underserved  communities where art can serve as the catalyst for understanding, healing and change for veterans.”

From World War II to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those honored in this collection of 30-by-40-inch oil paintings are not only diverse in age, but gender, ethnicity, rank and background. What bonds them is their shared commitment to serving America during conflict and peace, at home and in foreign lands, and their often newfound eagerness to share their unique, personal and meaningful experiences with others.

For most subjects, PAVP is a deeply personal journey full of reflection and introspection.

John D. Roach, a Navy and Vietnam War vet living in Lake in the Hills, said participating in the project helped him recall the values he learned through the military and the values instilled by his father, a World War II vet whose career spanned 30 years in the Navy.

“The project is important because the stories of America’s veterans and their sacrifices and endurance deserve to be told, shared and remembered,” Roach said. “Jeanine’s project is one of the many ways it can occur. Her art helps to tell those stories.”

The local response to the PAVP has been positive and supportive. “I’ve received many thank you notes and emails from people, especially from veterans and their family members,” Hill-Soldner said. “Many of those who have viewed the paintings and read the stories start conversations and share stories, which in turn has started a dialogue and created new connections between the veterans and the larger community. This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

PAVP’s biggest local supporters include Mike Iwanicki, director of Veterans Assistance Commission in Woodstock; Woodstock VFW; Carpentersville VFW; National Veterans Art Museum (Chicago); Algonquin Area Public Library; NASA Education Corp.; Lakeside Legacy Arts Park; “and all the other kind and generous organizations and individ-uals that have assisted me in bringing the PAVP into the public view,” she said.

Healing Through Art

Hill-Soldner has a deep belief that art has the power to heal ­— PAVP has proved this time and again. Adam Navarro-Lowery, a veteran of the Kosovo Conflict in the late ’90s was Hill-Soldner’s first subject and a prime example of art’s role in healing emotional wounds. Navarro-Lowery served for more than three years in the U.S. Military Police Corps deployed to Kosovo for a six-month tour, and was honorably discharged in 2003.

She said he had trouble opening up at first, but that he came around during the process. “Working with veterans, many who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and disabilities — this is a healing project for many of them,” she said. “Particularly veterans who were in combat, it’s difficult to talk about it. The portrait painting in the studio is a therapeutic process. That said, all comments and stories are confidential and, unless approved by the veteran, are never to leave the four walls of the studio.”

According to Dick Hattan, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Geneva, “I found that in sitting for this portrait that Jeanine was able to engage me in a conversation about my military experience as though she was a peer. As she asked open-ended questions about my tour of duty in Vietnam in 1971, I began to explore feelings that I didn’t know I had; emotions pertaining to guilt for returning home safe while some of my buddies didn’t and being part of a war effort that I didn’t really believe was just. Our discussion stirred up these memories and forced me to deal with them at a later time. I now feel at peace, forgiven and free from guilt.”

Nearing Completion
The 20th portrait Hill-Soldner completed this summer is of Anna Hauge, a Cary native who was a Navy nurse in World War II. She was aboard the USS Tranquility, the hospital ship that treated USS Indianapolis survivors in August 1945.

“We never felt we did anything special during our service — we just came home from the war and got on with our lives,” Hauge said. “It’s nice to finally be recognized [through PAVP].”

This is a sentiment shared by most of Hill-Soldner’s subjects, particularly the World War II vets.

There are five more veterans she has been in contact with for the past year, including her father-in-law, a Marine who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. “These final portraits will be completed within the next year,” she added.

The Process
With 20 paintings under her belt and five to go, Hill-Soldner definitely has the process of developing these pieces down pat.

First, the veterans meet with her in her garden level studio at Lakeside Legacy Arts Park in Crystal Lake for an interview, a photo shoot and a sketching session.

“Through this project, I learned to be a good listener,” she said. “I’ve learned to witness and honor the complex stories of our citizen soldiers; through the silent narrative of the paintings these stories emerge.”

Added Frances Mai-Ling, research assistant and biographer: “Jeanine has a military understanding [connecting her] with each veteran — they open up and tell stories they normally would never tell. This really helps out and starts the process extremely well.”

Mai-Ling is a Spring Grove resident who creates vet biographies that are available to view in a notebook at PAVP exhibits. She befriended Hill-Soldner in 2007 and they soon discovered that their fathers were both World War II veterans. Mai-Ling’s father, DeYip G. Louie, was the second veteran and first World War II vet the artist painted.

“One of the other reasons why I thought it was important to tell each veteran’s story is that even though veterans understand veterans, the general public doesn’t know their stories,” she said. “I hope that I represented and honored each veteran with their profile in the way they served our county. I hope that each person who views each portrait sees how the stories complement them.”

About the Artist
The daughter of a Marine, Jeanine Hill-Soldner’s frequent moves to various military bases as a child taught her to “quietly observe the world around,” she explained. “This greatly influenced my work.”

At age 12, she received her first drawing award. A gift of oil paints from her grandfather gave impetus to her love for art, and by age 15, she began acrylic painting classes with Florida artist Lanier Densmore.

Her passion for art led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in art education from the University of Florida in Gainesville, and a master’s of art in art education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

She moved to England in 1980 with her husband Keith after college where she worked for a year on independent study in art and art history at the Liverpool Polytechnical Institute (now the University of Liverpool).

She has taught art in a variety of schools both public and private, as well as some college and adult education courses.

“Art has informed my teaching, which in turn has influenced my own artwork; this brings the best of both worlds together,” she said.

She continues to teach continuing professional development unit classes for District 47 and teaches all ages at her studio, Soldner Fine Art Studio at Lakeside Legacy Arts Park in Crystal Lake.

Over the past 30 years, Hill-Soldner’s work has been displayed extensively in a variety of U.S. galleries and museums.

Portraits and figure artwork are dominant themes in her portfolio. “I find a unique visual richness in the everyday world around me, and in the people, places and events that shape our time,” she said. “Painting brings me closer to the deepest and most sublime moments in life and captures the viewer’s imagination.”

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