Dave Rappaport Speech from Reunion 2023

5 months ago

Speech presented to the 2023 Gathering of Tomb Guards Banquet for the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on November 4, 2023.

Dear Honored dinner guests,

It is indeed an honor to be invited to join all of you here this evening at this annual Gathering of the Guards Banquet. And a distinct privilege to be able to address all of you.

Before I share a few prepared remarks let me first thank all of you active or retired military service members for your service as well as any current or retired civilian members of DoD present here this evening.

Secondly, let me extend my sincere sympathies to any Gold Star family members here tonight for your loss and recognize all the things that you do in support of families who have lost a family member while in service.

And thirdly, let me state, unequivocally, that I have the deepest respect and admiration for all the Tomb Guards gathered here. I cannot begin to imagine the level of determination and commitment each of you must have had in order to earn that badge that so few have earned over the years. Your duty to protect and loyalty to your brothers who are interred in that sacred place is immeasurable and surely a testament to your patriotism and defense of our country. I am in awe of whom you are and of all that each of you do or have done here at Arlington.

To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference for me as an artist. Originally a sculptor who worked in wood, when I was forced to give up the file and the saw in exchange for the pastel pencil and the paint brush, instead of working in color as most artists do, I chose to create images almost exclusively in black and white. And that is how I believe I ended up here this evening with all of you.

I am a self-taught artist. The derivative monochromatic watercolor paintings that comprise the Tomb exhibit - with the exception of the Centennial painting - were created using the same technique that I employed to produce the forty-five images of women service members that currently comprise The Changing Face of Courage Exhibit that is displayed in the main hall of the Military Women’s Memorial. I use a single color - Payne’s Gray - to construct the image on watercolor paper and nothing else. All the white areas are negative space untouched by my brush; the rest of the image is built up by simply using different washes of paint from light gray to a deep almost black wash. It is not unusual for me to apply as many as ten or fifteen washes over the same area in order to complete the image.

The genesis of this Tomb exhibit can be traced back to my original decision to do a portrait of a female Tomb Guard in advance of the Centennial of the Tomb. That painting, a portrait of Ruth Hanks. was completed in 2020 and it was intended to be added to The Changing Face of Courage Exhibit and used in November 2021 to highlight the participation of women as Tomb Guards. However, as the date of the Centennial approached I decided to offer to create additional paintings that would help tell the story of the Unknown Soldier. And that is how I was introduced to Richard AZZARO.

Beginning in September 2021, after a zoom call with Richard, I began to research the history of the Tomb, the United States’ desire to honor our Unknown war dead after our Allies Great Britain and France had done so two years after the end of the Great War. I learned of the personal efforts by then Congressman Hamilton Fish III, who had commanded the Fighting 369th Regiment, affectionately known as the Harlem Hellfighters, to have such a funerary monument constructed here in the United States. It was he “ ….who On Dec. 21, 1920, …..introduced House Resolution 67, which called for the remains of an unknown American soldier killed in France to be returned to the U.S. and interred in a tomb to be constructed outside the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington.”

By early November 2021 I had completed six paintings which I brought down to be displayed at a High Tea held at the Women’s Memorial several days before the Centennial. As important as these six images were, they only represented a fraction of the story that I wanted to tell on paper.

So over the next two years I worked with both Richard and Donna Houle to expand the exhibit. By the spring of 2023 the exhibit had grown to twenty-six paintings, with the last being the Centennial image of the Tomb - replete with colored petals…

I will admit that when I started this project I knew very little about the Tomb or the history of its creation. It has been a truly humbling experience to learn about the first Unknown Soldier who, with the assistance of the French Government, was removed from French soil, selected by a veteran still stationed in France, and placed in the care of a young and challenged Marine detail aboard a cruiser that would battle some of the roughest seas in order to bring home this country’s Unknown son for burial in Arlington.

Not unlike the emotional struggles I experienced while working on some of the portraits of women service members - those who had made the ultimate sacrifice - I sometimes found myself in deep thought while working on this project. There was one time when, after reading a recent poem written about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, that I felt I had to share my thoughts because unlike the other poet, I wanted my words to recognize not just the first, but all three of the Unknowns who are interred there now.

Before I close my remarks with the poem that I wrote last year while working on the painting that depicts a woman kneeling by the Tomb, I want to thank Donna Houle and the leadership of WIMSA for taking a chance on me in 2014 to create a painting for use in their Memorial’s twentieth year anniversary celebration. Without their trust in me I would never have had the opportunity and distinct privilege to share these works of art with all of you this evening. It has indeed been a humbling journey - especially these last two years…

The poem is entitled - In Commemoration

We lie here now,
alone and yet together,
each waiting to
hear the voices that
memory has kept alive;
hoping to see again those who gave us life,
or who now mourn our passing.

If we could speak,
we would also comfort those others who
have come in search of countless souls,
who kneel on
stones cut by the hands
of patriot sons….
placing flowers in
remembrance of lives
offered for Liberty’s sake.

We would whisper,
in response to their prayerful questions now carried on the soft breeze that courses this hallowed ground,
that their loved ones,
like us,
are safe in eternity’s caring arms.

And when they ask,
as many do,
while staring at this
marble tomb,
if we regret the dreams lost
and the promises unkept;
never to greet our parents, wives, brothers, sisters and
girlfriends again;
or to raise sons and daughters that now remain unborn and, yes, unknown, too,
how should we answer?

Dave Rappaport is a self-taught New York painter and sculptor who worked for the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy for 37 years. His work has spanned decades and a variety of dimensions culminating in his recent work almost entirely monochromatic.

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