In Texas, one veteran dedicates life to painting fallen heroes

Baytown, TX

Ken Pridgeon paints a portrait of a fallen servicemember. | Photo courtesy of Portrait of a Warrior

Ken Pridgeon wakes every day to work toward his goal: to paint portraits of each of the Texan men and women killed in action in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since he began in 2010, he has painted more than 150 fallen servicemembers. There are still more than 400 left.

The Portrait of a Warrior Memorial Gallery in Baytown, Texas, holds the completed paintings, and Pridgeon said about 100 people a week file in for tours. He shares the 3-by-6-foot paintings along with the stories of the fallen.

"They're leaning up against the wall, some of them four or five deep, so people have to flip through them like a Rolodex," Pridgeon said. "I took my frames all off because there was no room for the frames anymore, it’s just wallpaper, they’re putting them together all throughout the building."

He said there are plans to move into a 5,600-square-foot facility.

Pridgeon, who served with the Air Force from 1953 to 1963, had a career as a commercial painter who painted in his spare time as well. He tried his hand at portraiture--a likeness of his father, which his siblings didn't recognize.

"They said, 'Who's that?' And I said, 'Well, I guess I'm not a portrait artist, which happens to a lot of people. They try something, and you have to fail your way to success. A lot of people don’t learn that young enough in life. They fail and they say, 'Oh, I'm a failure. I can't do that.'"

At age 73, he was inspired to try portraits again after seeing the rudimentary-level skills of a painting class he modeled for. He began with self-portraits, then teaching small classes. Then a request came to paint a portrait for a KIA veteran, Wesley Riggs.

Then another request came, and another.

This snowballed into Portrait of a Warrior.

Now his process is down to a near-science. He said it takes about eight days per portrait. He begins with research. Influenced by Norman Rockwell, Pridgeon wanted to include backstories in the portraits. He's included families, hobbies, including bull riding, and beloved dogs. He said he researches the epitaphs of each soldier, connecting with family members and gathering the funny and memorable tales.

Then, working from photos, Pridgeon gets to painting.

Pridgeon stressed how recent these deaths are, and that families usually grieve several years "before they can even look at a portrait of their son or daughter."

A smaller framed print goes to each of the families for free.

"I can't bring their kids back. All I can do is just provide a little Band-Aid over their hearts and I can hug their necks and they can know that their kid will be remembered," Pridgeon said.

When families of the veterans depicted visit, Pridgeon shares in the emotion.

"We cry a lot. ... We relive their lives in here and they tell me a lot of funny stories, and when they go out the door they're laughing and joking and having a good time because we celebrated their [children's] lives," he said.

This gives Pridgeon the momentum to spend his days at the easel, and evenings researching.

"I just spend about 10 or 12 hours a day painting six days a week. But it's not work, I don't call it work. I just paint," Pridgeon said. "I'm tickled to death, I've got a place to work, I'm going to keep painting. The only thing that bothers me is - Lord willing - I'll be 80 years old and what's going to happen if something happens to me? We've got to have somebody who wants to carry this on."

This has given him a sense of urgency. Last week, he started painting a face a day, with plans to compose the backgrounds and have others complete or contribute to them.

"You know you wake up with new plans--because my overall goal is to have a Portrait of a Warrior Memorial Art Gallery in every state in the Union."

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