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Documentary wins Gabriel Award
archived from: 2014-07-18

WQED program chronicles World War II artist Elizabeth Black

For the third time, a documentary written and produced by WQED’s David Solomon with photography and editing by Paul Ruggieri has been recognized with a national Gabriel Award. Solomon accepted the 2014 Gabriel Award for “Portraits for the Homefront: The Story of Elizabeth Black” June 19 at the Catholic Media Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. Gabriel Awards are presented by the Catholic Academy of Communication Arts Professionals to films and programs throughout North America that uplift the human spirit by focusing on people who foster community, creativity, tolerance, justice and compassion.

The WQED documentary chronicled the life of Black, who abandoned a promising Pittsburgh art career to travel through Europe during World War II sketching soldiers, sailors and airmen in field camps. She did more than 1,000 portraits, which were sent home to worried parents, wives and other family members in the United States.

“Portraits” was narrated by WQED’s Michael Bartley, who, along with Solomon, Ruggieri, Pierina Morelli and Iris Samson, won a 2006 Gabriel for “From Pittsburgh to Poland: Lessons of the Holocaust.” In 2010, Solomon and Ruggieri received a Gabriel for “Losing Lambert: A Journey Through Survival & Hope,” a film about local parents who lost children to suicide.

Solomon is a member of St. Maurice Parish in Forest Hills, Ruggieri is a member of St. Paul Parish in Greensburg and Bartley is a member of St. Rosalia in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood.

In 2010, John Black and his wife, Kay, of Germantown, Tennessee, received an unexpected surprise: his mother’s footlocker filled with 100 photographs of her sketches, images of Elizabeth Black standing before the easel as fascinated soldiers watched, scrapbooks, news clippings and other memorabilia. The trunk had been stored for decades in a family member’s garage in California.

In 2011, John Black connected with WQED executive producer Solomon, who began work on the documentary and a companion interactive outreach project.

Through social media, a separate interactive component of the project, “Finding Elizabeth’s Soldiers,” is working to make sure the 100 portraits in the Black collection reach the families that might not have them. An online gallery of the drawings can be viewed at www.wqed.org/elizabethblack. As the veterans’ images are identified and connected with families, WQED will mark the sketches accordingly on the site.

Black was an up-and-coming artist in 1930s Pittsburgh. After recognition at Carrick and Peabody high schools, Black won a scholarship to the city’s Ad-Art Studio School, took classes at Carnegie Tech and studied at the prestigious Art Students League of New York. Prominent Pittsburgh families including the Mellons, Craigs and Shaws commissioned her work for portraits of children and other family members.

Black’s crowning achievement in Pittsburgh was her selection in 1940 to paint 25 larger-than-life portraits of literary greats such as Longfellow, Dickinson, Thoreau and others. The portraits were permanently mounted at the Carnegie Library on the city’s North Side until they disappeared during a late 1960s renovation.

At the height of World War II, Black joined the American Red Cross and was assigned to the Clubmobile division. The retrofitted buses and trucks, staffed and driven by women, traveled to field camps throughout Europe providing doughnuts, coffee and a smiling face to war-weary troops.

Hoping to be more than a hostess and utilize her talent, Black proposed a unique project to sketch soldiers and send the portraits to worried families in the United States. The American Red Cross accepted the plan, giving her special assignment status.

For nearly two years Black sketched her way across Europe, choosing her subjects through a lottery and completing as many as a dozen portraits a day. Every soldier, sailor and airman signed their sketches, often including endearments to loved ones back home. They also autographed Black’s journal, a fascinating collection of appreciative messages, poems and well wishes to the talented and charming Pittsburgh artist.

Black completed more than 1,000 sketches. The originals were sent to wives, mothers and other family members. At some point, Black took quality photographs of about 100 sketches to keep a record of her work.

In Cherbourg, France, Black met a naval commander from Tennessee who ironically shared her last name. She married Julian Black at the American Cathedral in Paris in 1945.

After the war, the couple eventually settled in Waynesboro, Virginia. With her art career nearly dormant, Black devoted her time to raising sons George and John while helping her husband start a business.

After Julian Black’s passing and with her sons grown, Black moved to Berkeley, California, and later Portland, Oregon. She resumed portrait work to a far lesser extent than her successful Pittsburgh years. In 1983, Elizabeth Black had a heart attack and died at 71.




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