Our Veterans Day 2022 cover features the powerful art of Quogue artist Steve Alpert, whose works honor and support the U.S. military and have been exhibited at the likes of the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery.
Steve Alpert on Painting the Military
What inspired you to paint the “Portrait of a Woman” triptych?
It was a unique thing … it popped into my head like a flash of light. All of a sudden in one split second the image was there: a woman in uniform saluting the flag from three different angles. The seed of the inspiration came from a stage play I had recently produced with my friend Ken Greiner, a Tony-winning theatrical producer. Our play was The Steadfast written by Mat Smart and inspired by a painting I had made, “Legacy,” depicting soldiers from the eight uniform eras of the U.S. Army since the Revolutionary War to present. The show closed in February 2013. One of the female characters stayed in my head.
How has “Portrait of a Woman” been received since its creation?
In 2015, the then chief of protocol for Vice President Joe Biden asked if I would loan the triptych to the vice-presidential mansion at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. The three canvases of “Portrait of a Woman” hung in the Joint Forces Room, which was the reception area for the 2015 holiday season. My wife, Dorothy, and I waited our turn to enter the room where we were announced and shook hands with the vice president and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden. … It was very disorienting to see those paintings up on the wall that I had worked on for months and months … quite a moment I will remember always.
From there, the triptych moved across the Potomac to the Women’s Military Memorial Museum, where we had a very nice unveiling ceremony. The paintings were on exhibition there for five years.
Why did you begin painting American military contemporary?
I never served in uniform and it is my greatest regret in this life. I chose college instead of enlisting when I finished high school in 1969. The Vietnam War was still raging and although it is said that one does not get to choose what war to serve in, I went to college and drew a high lottery number. That was that.
In 1985, I found myself in front of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Wall. There was a letter in a plastic stand from a mother to her son. It was his birthday and she had left the letter earlier that day. After reading the first paragraph, I was overcome by grief and shame that my name was not on that wall, and worse that I did not serve. … It all took me by surprise.
A seed was sown in me that resurfaced on the morning of September 11, 2001. I think that might be true for so many of us as a strong sense of patriotism came into being in a new and powerful way.
I began making paintings of Blackhawk helicopters and then moved to other military subject matter. I did not know what to do with these paintings until 2007 when I visited with four young wounded men at the old Walter Reed Army Hospital. That day changed my life and I realized my paintings were to raise consciousness and money to help veterans and their families, which I am still doing today, 20 years later.
The first organization I became involved in was Fisher House — donated nine paintings at that time and we raised $40K, all of it going to Fisher House.
What do you enjoy most about painting?
Standing before a fresh blank canvas and considering the possibilities. Then, putting all thought aside, squeezing the oil paint onto the palette and putting brush to canvas. Who knows what could happen? It is adventure, excitement and romance all at once.
I recently competed a series of large portraits of 12 women veterans for a project I co-created with former Naval aviator and women veterans advocate Linda Maloney. The project is called “Proudly She Served” and it shines a light on the service of women who served. The Proudly She Served museum exhibit is on display at seven military museums across the U.S. right now and we continue to attract more museums who want to feature the portraits and accompanying biographies of these extraordinary women.
What’s most rewarding about creating paintings to honor the U.S. military?
Having the paintings raise funds for veterans and their families. That from my work, those who have served in uniform — and their families — will derive real life benefits. For example, Children of Fallen Patriots pays for college tuition for kids who lost a parent in the line of duty. We have sold five large metal prints of my work and thus far raised $240K. When I go to bed at night I often think about how many kids will get a college education with that money.
I will never know who they are, but that does not matter. To borrow a phrase from Medal of Honor winner Jack Jacobs, it is investing in the future of America. It means everything to me to be a part of this.
What is one short-term or long-term artistic goal you’d like to achieve?
I recently completed a portrait of Ann Berry, Secretary of the United States Senate. Ann is the first person of color to serve in that position. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and has enjoyed a career of service on Capitol Hill. Throughout her career, Ann Berry has worked for a number of prominent U.S. senators. Ann is an old friend, and I very much want to have her properly honored with a portrait.
I would like to see Madam Secretary’s portrait hanging in a place of honor in Washington, D.C.
Anything you’d like to add?
I was a TV producer for 35 years. Then I transitioned to painting. It was a difficult transition and I did it in Quogue. … At the outset, I knew no artists and nothing about the art business. I knew it would take time to develop my vision and skills even though I had been painting since 19. I dove in blindly with the support of my wife, Dorothy, who I am forever grateful to.
I would say to anyone who aspires to something they have always wanted to do … DO IT! Life is short, jump in, work hard, study hard and don’t judge yourself too harshly. Have faith you are doing the right thing. What your heart tells you is always the right thing. Passion!
Someone asked me, “How did you get to have your paintings at the home of the vice president?” I answered, “I didn’t quit.”
To see more of Steve Alpert’s art, visit stevealpertart.com