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Sketching Her Way Across Europe: The Elizabeth Black Story

By LtCol Mike Christy

Together We Served “Dispatches”

In 2010, John Black and his wife Kay of Germantown, Tennessee received an unexpected surprise at their doorstep: a footlocker, which had been stored and 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. “I remember these. Thank heavens they’re still around,” he thought to himself. “The sheer volume of it was overwhelming. It took us awhile to sort through it all.”

Although he and his brother knew some things about their mother during her World War II experience, the discovery of her work launched him on a journey to meet this remarkable woman who had been his mother and to share her story in the widest, most dramatic way possible.

Eventually arriving at WQED Multimedia in her hometown of Pittsburgh he found what he had been hoping for: people who shared his vision on what a great documentary his mother’s story would make. The project was immediately assigned to Emmy Award-winning team of writer/producer David Solomon and photographer/editor Paul Ruggieri. The award winning documentary, “Portraits for the Homefront: The Story of Elizabeth Black” premiered November 2013.

The one-hour documentary explored 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 during the war.

Frank and Eva Clark were surprised when John Black and WQED staff visited their home to present them with a long-lost portrait of Frank sketched in 1944, while he served with the Army in France.

“It’s a nice gift, a really nice gift,” Clark, 92, said. “I’ve got four girls, and they all wanted one. They are fighting over it,” he said “They really enjoy the way it looks. It looks just like me.”

Clark remembered Elizabeth Black as “real nice to get along with. She took a lot of time with you.” It lifted the spirits of the men, he said.

When contacted, Betty Koppel Houston said it was about a year after her father, Leo Koppel, had been deployed with the Army that her worried family received a portrait of him from the Red Cross. He was sketched on leave in Holland after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. “It was exciting to see the portrait when it came home. I was 7 when he went away. I was Daddy’s girl. I missed my father,” she said.

Her mother hung the portrait on the wall in the living room of their residence. Houston now has it on the wall in her home. “It means the world to me,” she said. “It’s a good likeness.”

Leo Koppel autographed it to his wife: “To Betty, Love + Kisses, your loving husband, Leo.”

John Black, who praised the manner in which Solomon tells his mother’s story, said, “The most-poignant take-away for him from all the memorabilia probably is the letters written to his mother from family members after they received a sketch.”

In some cases, because of slow wartime mail, the loved one had been killed. But a family member, usually a wife, mother or sibling, still wrote a thank-you letter to a stranger who had given the family a wonderful gift. Other letter-writers pleaded for more information about their loved one. Black said, “They wrote, ‘You have seen him. How is he? Where is he now? It’s been so long since we heard from him. We are so worried.”

Born in 1912, Elizabeth Black descended from a paternal grandfather John Wesley Black, founder of a weekly newspaper called The Pittsburgh Bulletin. Her father, John Wesley Black Jr., also worked for that publication.

At a very young age, Elizabeth showed a remarkable talent as an up-and-coming artist in 1930s Pittsburgh. Following recognition at Carrick and Peabody high schools and taking classes at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, she won a scholarship to the city’s Ad-Art Studio School, took classes at Carnegie Tech and studied at the prestigious Art Students League of New York.

Prominent Pittsburgh families including the Mellons, Craigs and Shaws asked her to sketch portraits of their children and other family members. She painted murals for the Point Breeze Presbyterian Church. Her crowning achievement was her selection in 1940 to paint 25 larger-than-life portraits of literary greats such as Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Emily Dickinson. It was no easy task. She stood for hours on a ladder, day-after-day carefully painting each stroke of each portrait into recesses near the ceiling of a great room in the Carnegie Library in the city’s North Side neighborhood. Unfortunately, the paintings disappeared during a 1960s renovation.

At the height of World War II, Elizabeth left her promising art career behind and joined the American Red Cross. Following three weeks of screening and training in Washington, D.C., she boarded a ship for England in summer 1943. At age 31, she was stationed in London at a Red Cross Club as part of the Clubmobile brigades – women who drove to field camps in retrofitted buses or trucks throughout Europe providing doughnuts, coffee and a smiling face to war-weary troops.

Hoping to be more than a hostess, she sought permission from the American Red Cross and the U.S. military to use her abilities to sketch Soldiers and send the portraits to worried families in the United States. In a seven-page business plan written on onion-skin paper she laid out her idea, what she would need in the way of art supplies to carry it out and how it would all work to include that camps hold lotteries to determine who would set for her. The American Red Cross accepted her proposal.

In less than a year, Elizabeth sketched her way across England, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg visiting camps and boosting the morale of American Soldiers and capturing hundreds of young faces with deft strokes of charcoal.

When she finished whosever portrait she was working on, she asked her subjects to sign their portraits and write their hometown addresses. The large sketches, dated and signed, often containing endearments to loved ones back home, were mailed to parents, wives and siblings.

Often her sketches reached families months after they were mailed due to the agonizing slow nature of wartime delivery. Some were never arrived at all. In some cases, the subject had died before the portrait got to the family. They would write a letter saying, “Thank you so much. We will cherish this forever. He was killed a month ago.”

Regardless of where she was drawing a portrait, curious onlookers gathered around, grateful for the chance to talk or even flirt with the blue-eyed, brunette portrait artist. Some wrote heartfelt notes of appreciation in a notebook she carried with her at all times.

On Oct. 21, 1944, a staff sergeant from Los Angeles wrote, “My best wishes to the finest personality I have ever met and sincerely an artist to scetch (sic) a mug like mine. Thanks a million!” A poem from a Brooklyn Soldier ended, “Never will I forget that friendly gal/who made me smile, thank you pal.”

During a visit to Cherbourg, France, in 1944, the artist met Julian Black, a Navy commander from Chattanooga, Tenn. They joked about their shared last name, and he wrote a popular song lyric in her notebook, “I’ll be seeing you.”

After an intense courtship, they married during the 1944 Christmas holidays at the American Chapel in Paris. Family legend has it that they were the first American couple to do so there since D-Day.

When the war ended, the couple sailed for America in June 1945 and settled first in Staunton, Va., moving three years later to Waynesboro, then a town of 11,000 people located 20 miles southeast of Charlottesville.

Elizabeth had two sons and helped her attorney husband Julian with his soft-drink business he had entered with a college classmate. After he husband died from a heart attack in 1956, Elizabeth sold the business back to her late husband’s friend and waited for her sons to grow up. In 1963, she packed up the family car and moved to Berkeley, Calif. She chose Berkeley because it was a college town and had a bohemian reputation of being a good place for artists and musicians. She resumed portrait work but on a far lesser scale than her successful Pittsburgh years.

Later she moved to Portland, Ore., where at the age of 71, she died from a heart attack in October 1983.

Producer/writer David Solomon said, “The story of Elizabeth Black is a reminder of how just one person can make a huge difference.” “She provided a moment of brightness for hundreds of troops in battle, and gave hundreds of families’ peace of mind when it was desperately needed.” The undertaking has been one of the most-memorable and satisfying in his career he added.

If you are interested in seeing the entire hour of “Portraits for the Homefront: The Story of Elizabeth Black,” please go to the following site. It will be well worth your time.

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