Kaziah Hancock is a people person. She studied the human face long before she began putting paint to canvas twenty-five years ago. With a self-described "weakness for a face that has weathered the storm," she specialized in painting the older, interesting people who made up her community.
"I wanted to preserve the memory of all those I had done business with for all those years, who were such characters," said 59-year-old Hancock. "When you look in the eyes, you see the look of honesty and the lines of integrity. You've just got to love that. They've lived a life and they are what they are. I like to preserve that."
Four years ago, Hancock was painting portraits at the Manti, Utah, ranch she shares with nearly 100 goats, when she heard talk on the radio that would change the course of her life forever.
" I was busy painting what I paint and I was trying to find a better music station," she said. "All of a sudden, I was spellbound."
What captured her attention was talk on the radio of a local Utah man, a soldier, who had been killed in Iraq.
"Instead of the war being over there, then all of a sudden the war was right there in my living room," said Hancock. "I just wept like a baby. Everything in me said 'I have got to find that family and let them know I would love to do an oil painting of this man.'"
Hancock contacted a friend who knew someone at the local newspaper. She sent her phone number to the family and awaited the call. Meanwhile, she heard of another soldier who died in Iraq, this time in a helicopter crash. Hancock sent her number to that family as well. It was the beginning of what was to be Hancock's Project Compassion, an organization dedicated to immortalizing the images of soldiers who have lost their lives to war. Hancock vowed to create a portrait of each U.S. service member killed in the line of duty as a memorial keepsake for the soldier's family. She said she won't quit, "until I either get them all painted or I expire trying. As long as I'm alive, and this old sister can pick up a brush, that ain't going to happen."
In galleries, Hancock's portraits range in price from $2,000 to $10,000. For the soldiers, she refuses to take money or even charge for shipping. When she took on the task, there were fewer than 100 casualties and the war was not expected to last long. But the war continued on and the body count kept growing. After a year and a half, Hancock's savings of $5,000 quickly turned to an equal amount of debt.
"I was on my knees every day. The requests kept coming in," she said. "My empathy is for these mothers. It wrings my heart what these mothers are going through. I would always do far more for heart than I would for money. It's about the beautiful men and women that I was to honor and to let the families know that somebody gives a damn."
In the face of financial hardship, Hancock persevered. She founded Project Compassion, and registered with the state of Utah as a non-profit organization. Seven months later, the project was approved and sponsors stepped forward to cover the cost of materials. Hancock also recruited 4 additional artists, who share her passion and agreed to paint for the cost of materials alone.
Tracking down the families of slain soldiers was a huge, time-consuming task. Hancock's partner, Marie Woolf, contacted the Department of Defense, which endorsed the project and, now sends Hancock a list of casualties. She, in turn, sends a letter to the families offering them an 18" x 24" oil-on-canvas portrait of their beloved soldier.
Only mothers, fathers or spouses of the soldiers may request a portrait. The families send information about the soldiers that includes his or her full name, rank, hometown and branch of service. Hancock requests at least 2 good quality photographs and a couple of written paragraphs that describe the soldier's personality. In the end, she said she calls upon her instincts to capture the essence of each soldier.
"When I attempt a painting, every fiber of my being is like an antenna. I am so full of electricity. It's like let me know who this guy is so I can nail it."
In one case, Hancock said she "just had a sense" that one soldier was a ladies man. Instinct, alone, had given her that information.
"The mom was confused," said Hancock. "She wondered, 'How did she know?' It turned out that 18 women had shown up at the funeral with his dog tags."
When she began the project four years ago, Hancock said it was emotionally difficult to complete each painting. The tragedy was overwhelming.
"When I first started doing it, it would affect me so bad that when I got through with a painting, I was just drained," Hancock said. "I would have to do something else."
Now, by concentrating on the principals and elements of her art, and focusing on the soldiers' lives rather than their deaths, Hancock is able to get the job done.
"My goal as a portrait specialist is to try to put the soul on the canvas," said Hancock. "That's a major challenge for any artist but that's the only way it's going to be good and I'll be able to give them at least some level of comfort."
Hancock is a hero, painting portraits of soldiers who are heroes to her. She's received numerous awards for her work, but she said the love she gets from the families is the best reward of all.
"When I have a phone call like the one from Lee Mills' mother. His mother called me with tears in her eyes and she said, 'Kaziah, I'm sitting here with so much appreciation in my heart for this gorgeous painting.' I could tell that she was crying. The tears came through her broken voice. She said, 'Kaziah, you have touched another life.'"
Through phone calls from loved ones and letters of thanks, Hancock has learned how important the portraits are to the grieving families. To date, the families of more than 500 soldiers have received her gifts.
"I realize how the families so need that," she said. "As I began to comprehend that, it made anything else I could have painted much less important. The soldiers are dear to my heart. Their faces are indelibly etched into my heart. They've changed me. I've done a lot of growing up in the last four years."
Along with her portraits, and the comfort they bring, Hancock hopes her effort to help other people is contagious.
"I want to reach out and kindle your flame so you can light as many candles as you can," she said. "We all have something to give. We all have something we can do. Fix a casserole. Mow a lawn. Nobody even knows what they can do until they try."