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Faces of courage on display at Woodbury library

In this portrait painted by artist Jay Wittenberg, Civil War soldier Lt. William May - of Washington County - is depicted.1 / 2
Artist Jay Wittenberg works on one of 52 portraits he has painted of First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry soldiers, which goes on display this month at R.H. Stafford Branch Library in Woodbury. submitted photo2 / 2

History will be staring Woodbury library visitors in the face this month.

Today through April 28, an exhibit featuring portraits of Civil War soldiers from Washington County will go on display at R.H. Stafford Branch Library.

"They're very arresting pictures," Washington County Library Division Manager Joe Manion said of the exhibit, painted by artist Jay Wittenberg.

The exhibit, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, features 18 painted portraits of soldiers who once called this area home.

"The names are still here in Washington County," Manion said.

Wittenberg, a St. Paul resident, said the project began in 2007 primarily as an ambition.

"I wanted to do something with potential for a large series," he said.

During the thought process, Wittenberg went to the Stafford library and began researching photos of Civil War soldiers.

"I thought this was a compelling enough subject that could keep my interest going over a long period of time," he said.

Wittenberg's project, called "The First Minnesota: Portraits by Jay Wittenberg," eventually received state Legacy Act funding. The exhibit has been running in Washington County libraries since February.

In all, Wittenberg has completed 52 portraits, comprising First Minnesota soldiers from Washington, Dakota and Ramsey counties.

Powerful themes

As he dug into the project, he learned just how compelling the work was. He located photos, and learned the ages, occupations and backgrounds of the soldiers.

The portraits - which began as sketches Wittenberg composed - were based off photos taken of the soldiers before they left for war.

He thought of the fears that were behind the soldiers' faces. The dread of leaving home for a battlefield. The realization that they might not return to Minnesota alive.

Wittenberg said he believes those feelings are present in the life-size paintings.

Indeed, many Minnesotans would perish during Civil War battle. At the First Battle of Bull Run, the First Minnesota regiment sustained the heaviest casualties of any federal regiment on the battlefield. The unit also received heavy casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In many cases, the photos were the first and last ever taken of the men - a facet that "adds a sacred quality to this project," Wittenberg said.

"That, to me, was compelling," he said.

Wittenberg also painted the frames for the portraits. Painted in Union blue, the frames depict symbols Wittenberg chose to represent each individual man featured in the portrait.

He and Manion think the images will be powerful to library visitors as well. Manion said the portraits become powerful when the feelings conveyed through them -- "fear, determination, courage" -- are digested by contemporary viewers. It becomes clear, he said, that those feelings are universal for soldiers - whether it was the Civil War or the current war in Afghanistan or ongoing conflict in Iraq.

"These are themes that are going on today," Manion said.

Wittenberg said he hopes the exhibit humanizes the Civil War for Stafford library visitors. People have a tendency to see history as a placid litany of numbers, dates, places, presidents and generals, he said.

"It becomes this abstract thing," Wittenberg said, adding that he expects visitors to experiences "a little bit more of a personal connection with this event.

"It's experiencing these individuals on a more personal basis," he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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