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Minn. artist uses talents to shed good light on armed forces

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Little Falls artist Charles Kapsner sketches Marine Cory Engen from Browerville this week at his studio. Kapsner is working on the fourth mural for the committal hall at the State Veterans Cemetery at Camp Ripley. The mural will depict the Marine Corps from it’s origin to present time. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service2 / 5
A sketch of a skull is pictured next to the charcoal drawing on canvas. The skull symbolizes soldiers missing in action. Zach Kayser / Forum News Service3 / 5
The work that will become the fourth of five paintings by Charles Kapsner depicting the various branches of the armed forces. This one honors the U.S. Marine Corps and is projected to be completed next spring. Zach Kayser / Forum News Service4 / 5
The space in the committal hall at the Minnesota Veterans Cemetery at Camp Ripley where the finished USMC painting will go. Zach Kayser / Forum News Service5 / 5

LITTLE FALLS, Minn.—Charles Kapsner's art studio is impressive with walls covered in portraits and elegant nudes.

His seven years of training in Italy—including at the Universita Internazionale dell' Arte in Florence—is readily apparent while looking at his work. Moving away from the walls, one can see shelves full of books on the old masters, expensive tubes of paint... and an M16 assault rifle balanced on the arms of a chair.

Kapsner is working on the fourth of five 8-foot-by-10-foot paintings honoring each major branch of the U.S. armed forces, to be placed in the rotunda of the committal hall at the Minnesota Veterans Cemetery at Camp Ripley. The painting in progress honors the U.S. Marine Corps, and like the earlier paintings in the series that depict the Army, Navy and Coast Guard, its composition combines three major elements: symbolism, the unique history of the particular branch, and contemporary real-life faces of service. In order to do justice to each branch's identity, Kapsner took pains to complete each painting one at a time, researching each of the branches in consultation with historians.

"You have five very distinct cultures," Kapnser said.

All five of the paintings were sketched out in 2009, but the final products have varied significantly from the initial ideas.

Kapsner integrated his artistic speciality of classical portraits into the project, depicting models who posed for him in his studio while clad in military uniforms. One area that would otherwise have shown a Marine kicking in a door will now instead show a portrait of Maj. Holly Zabinski, a Marine aviator that Kapsner met in Quantico, Va. Zabinski is now training to fly the V-22 Osprey, the military's plane/helicopter combination that is also depicted on the painting.

On Monday, ex-Marine reservist Cory Engen was modeling for Kapsner while dressed in battle dress uniform and the classic "jarhead" uniform cover, or hat. Currently, he works at the cemetery, helping to inter the very same veterans who will rest near the paintings. The painting will help the public understand the Marine Corps' history, which often goes unnoticed when the group is discussed, he said.

"They're first to fight," he said of the Marines' identity.

Modeling is all right, Engen said, although his leg did fall asleep at one point.

Historic photos of USMC soldiers in action provided a solid grounding for the artwork, in moments Marines actually experienced. The vignettes include a group of Marines marching while facing away from the viewer, and the flag raising on Mount Suribachi during World War II. Kapsner plans to use soil taken from Mount Suribachi itself and mix in the paint when he creates the Iwo Jima flag raising portion of the painting.

The USMC painting also exemplifies Kapsner's objective of incorporating the issues that face veterans into the artwork. A skull with a separated jaw bone symbolizes missing in action soldiers whose remains are still unaccounted for. A handgun lying in the foreground of the painting with a discharged shell casing is intended to symbolize military suicides, he said.

Kapsner is in the "sepia" underpainting stage on the Marine painting, where he takes the grid established in his sketch and then transfers it onto the larger Belgian linen canvas on which the painting itself will go. He uses charcoal to form the outline of the images and then covers it in turpentine to seal the charcoal dust. This stage allows Kapsner to see how the light source in the painting affects the images: how each part of the painting will be illuminated by the light from the upper left-hand corner.

The Coast Guard painting was installed in January 2016, and Kapsner anticipates completing the Marine painting next spring. Commissioned by the Minnesota Veterans Cemetery, the cost of Kapsner's work was projected at the outset of the series in 2009 as nearly a half-million dollars. The paintings are funded not by public state dollars, but by private donations from nonprofit groups, corporations and individuals.