Brave faces: How Elizabeth Black's charcoal sketches of WWII soldiers survived

The Pittsburgh-born artist is the subject of a new WQED documentary, 'Portraits for the Home Front.'

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Elizabeth Black sketched her way across Europe during World War II, boosting the morale of American soldiers and capturing hundreds of young faces with deft strokes of charcoal.

While working as a staff assistant with the American Red Cross, she created as many as a dozen portraits a day for GIs who were so grateful for the chance to talk or even flirt with the blue-eyed, brunette portrait artist from Pittsburgh that they wrote heartfelt notes of appreciation she kept in a notebook. The large sketches, dated and signed and often containing messages to loved ones back home, were mailed to parents, wives and siblings. In an old foot locker, Mrs. Black saved more than 50 of their heartfelt thank-you notes, photos of about 100 sketches and her notebook.

More than 25 years after his mother's death, in spring 2010, John Black lifted the lid of that leather-handled trunk for the first time. He had heard about his mother's work overseas but time had given him a greater appreciation for her talent, sense of adventure and concern for enlisted men.

"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."

A desire to tell his mother's story led him to contact a public television station in Memphis, where he lives. He wound up working with WQED, whose documentary, "Portraits for the Home Front: The Story of Elizabeth Black," airs at 8 p.m. Thursday.

Often, Mrs. Black's sketches reached families months after they were mailed due to the agonizingly slow nature of wartime delivery. Some never arrived at all. That's why WQED producer David Solomon launched a website -- -- where families can search for portraits of veterans.

Of the 15 veterans or family members located by college interns at WQED, eight are from Western Pennsylvania, Ohio or West Virginia. A family in suburban Philadelphia saw a wartime sketch of their late father for the first time last year, Mr. Solomon said. Frank Clark, a 92-year-old Army veteran from Beaver, received his last June.

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 but the family struggled during the Depression and moved frequently.

She took classes at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and trained at the prestigious Art Students' League in New York City. Prominent local families such as the Mellons, Craigs and Shaws asked her to sketch portraits of their children. She painted murals for the Point Breeze Presbyterian Church and in the early 1940s, the Works Progress Administration commissioned her to paint 25 large oil portraits of great American poets and writers for the Carnegie Library's North Side branch.

In June 1943, her appointment as a service club staff assistant with the American Red Cross made the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, along with her picture.

"Sketching soldiers for their amusement, making posters and decorating the club, as well as acting as a hostess, will be Miss Black's duties when she is stationed overseas," the newspaper reported.


Over there

The artist underwent three weeks of screening and training in Washington, D.C., before boarding a ship for England in summer 1943. At age 31, she was stationed in London at a Red Cross Club, distributing coffee, doughnuts, cigarettes, candy and American newspapers to U.S. soldiers who needed a break.

"She was scared of the bombings in London," John Black said.

Her fears were well-founded, said Susan Robbins Watson, archivist for the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. A total of 86 people were killed during the war while working overseas with the organization.

One of the artist's many talents was knowing how to market herself. She had sought permission from the American Red Cross and the U.S. military to use her abilities. In a seven-page business plan written on onion-skin paper, she outlined the supplies she would need, the importance of arranging for a lottery to determine which soldiers would be sketched and the impact of her artwork.

"Back of every soldier's willingness to sit for a drawing of himself is his desire to send it to someone back home," the artist wrote. "Thus, the faces of their boys, the flier, the gunner, the engineer, the paratrooper, the mechanic, records for the American people the story of the American Army in this war."

Mr. Black said his mother's wartime notebook reveals a lot about her life overseas.

"She kept sort of a diary of the sketches she did of the soldiers. The soldiers wrote a little note to her. I can tell from that that she was very engaging," he said.

During a visit to Cherbourg, France, in 1944, the artist met Julian Black, a naval commander from Chattanooga, Tenn. They joked about having the same last name.

"I'll be seeing you," he wrote in her notebook, using the title of a popular song. After an intense courtship, they married at the American Cathedral in Paris around Christmas 1944 and honeymooned at the Ritz.

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.

"She did some beautiful work there. There wasn't a huge demand for portraits in a town that size. She felt unfulfilled," Mr. Black said.

His father, who was an attorney, entered the soft drink bottling business with a college classmate. After her husband died from a heart attack in 1956, Mrs. Black 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, " Mr. Black recalled, adding that he was 16 and decided to finish his high school education in Waynesboro.

At age 71, Mrs. Black died in Portland, Ore., from a heart attack in October 1983. Her son regrets not talking to her about her war experiences. But he scanned all of the photos of her sketches "so they would be in a form that would last. Since they were in the foot locker, they didn't fade."

He's glad he had the chance to recount his mother's life story.

"That was a fun challenge. My primary goal was to honor my mother. She should have gotten more recognition in her life both for her tremendous skill as a portrait painter and for this unique experience she had in World War II. If she was alive today, she would be very happy that this was done. I know this meant a lot to the soldiers and their families."

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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