For years, an art project to connect people to veterans and a history of sacrifice has been putting faces and places on canvas.

The Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery Memorial Association commissioned artist Charles Gilbert Kapsner of Little Falls to create five oil paintings. The 8-feet-by-10-foot paintings depict a wide range of vignettes covering generations of servicemen and women.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The third painting in the series was hoisted into place in the cemetery's committal hall Thursday afternoon. The cemetery is near Camp Ripley, just off Highway 371.

The latest installment depicts the Coast Guard's history of protecting the nation's extensive coastline, Great Lakes and three major inland rivers: Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio.

The painting includes Alexander Hamilton, who is considered the father of the Coast Guard and as the first secretary of the treasury established the "Revenue Cutter Service" on Oct. 1, 1790. This service and the Life Saving Service were merged in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson.

In his research on the Coast Guard, Kapsner wrote: "The Coast Guard has the unique distinction of 'saving lives' amongst its varied duties." The painting includes the Split Rock Lighthouse, designed as a tribute to the waterways, as well as buoy tenders, Kapsner noted.

"One of their charges is environmental protection, as depicted by the seagull, polar bear and whale (their recent charge of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one example of this.)" Kapsner reported. "We see a couple or rescue scenes with the group in the water along with the helicopter. Firefighting on the open seas is also a duty."

After Sept. 11, the Coast Guard took on a larger role, protecting the nation's waterways. In the painting, a gunboat and SEAL-like figure are depicted. Kapsner noted the Coasties, as the Navy called the Coast Guard, are also tasked with protecting nuclear-powered submarines once they surface on their return to port.

The Coast Guard Academy is depicted by a woman with a bugle and a cadet climbing the ropes of Barque Eagle, a sailing ship with the Academy since 1947.

In the background in the painting is a convoy of ships. A responsibility of the Coast Guard is to keep shipping lanes open, including the use of icebreakers to accomplish it.

"These ships also pay homage to the Merchant Marine, a very important service that was given active duty service from 1941-1946. Their great service and sacrifice cannot be forgotten and their casualty rate was the highest of any branch of the service in World War II."

Kapsner stated the painting includes the Statue of Liberty as a reminder the U.S. "is a nation of immigrants and the freedoms we enjoy as Americans come from the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform."

How it started

The Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery Memorial Association commissioned Kapsner to design and create the five oil paintings. The project was first announced in 2009, with preliminary sketches providing a glimpse of what was to come. Live models and authentic uniforms from the Continental Army of the nation's birth to its great wars are helping to tell the story of veterans who sacrificed to support freedom and democracy.

When it was first announced, the project-funded by tax-deductible donations-was expected to cost $495,000 and take years to complete. The project is not being funded by public funds or tax dollars. Tax-deductible donations are being sought from individuals, corporations and civic organizations.

Kapsner considers each painting to be an allegorical piece, telling a story and using those symbolic figures to examine greater truths. Kapsner, who conducted extensive research for the project, has been working on the canvas in a studio created in a maintenance building at the cemetery.

When the project is completed there will be five paintings in the hall representing the American history of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard with homage to the Merchant Marine. Currently paintings of the Army, Navy and now the Coast Guard hang in the committal hall. The Army painting was installed in 2011. The Naval painting went into the committal hall in 2014.

Each layer of thin paint serves a purpose as Kapsner uses an indirect oil painting approach to his canvas to create a sense of depth. Kapsner studied in Italy.

The idea for the art project started with Gordon Gerling, former state representative from Little Falls. Gerling, an Air Force veteran, wanted to see a veterans memorial at the site. A conversation with Kapsner led to the art effort.

Kapsner, long noted for his fresco work, said decades of art experience and extensive research and travel for each military branch is going into the marathon project. The son of a World War II veteran, Kapsner has tapped into his own appreciation of history and his family background.

The painting will be unvelied in the committal hall at 2 p.m. Feb. 6 at the cemetery, 7 miles north of Little Falls on Minnesota Highway 115, next to Camp Ripley. The dedication is open to the public and will be followed by a 3 p.m. reception at the American Legion in Little Falls.


Editor's Note: An addition was made to the story to include the painting's unveiling event on Feb. 6.