Clovis News

Art honors fallen Valley troops

Kaziah Hancock gets teary-eyed when she talks about the portraits of military members she lovingly paints as gifts to parents whose sons or daughters have died serving their country.

It's the least she can do, she explains, to help those who have lost so much. "It's a simple act of kindness from one American to another," Hancock said.

The Utah artist heads the nonprofit Project Compassion, a group of five artists who lend their time and talent to paint portraits of fallen service members. They have painted 1,800 original portraits so far -- Hancock has produced about 660 of them -- and they have a long list of requests.

Today, four San Joaquin Valley families whose loved ones died in service will receive 18-inch-by-24-inch portraits from Hancock during an art show and reception in downtown Fresno at the KYNO/KJWL gallery.

The four service members are:

-- Army Cpl. Michael Rojas of Fresno, killed in 2007 at age 21.

-- Marine Lance Cpl. Anthony "Tony" Butterfield, 19, of Clovis, killed in 2006.

-- Marine Lance Cpl. Branden Ramey, 22, of Madera, killed in 2004.

-- Army National Guard Sgt. Patrick Ryan McCaffrey Sr., 34, of Tracy, killed in 2004.

About a month ago, Hancock contacted Fresno-based Brotherhood of the Badge International, a nonprofit group that provides equipment for Afghan and Iraqi police and firefighters, asking them to put her in touch with some local families. Ken Shockley, the group's vice president, said they contacted several and in about a month, the portraits were completed.

A trip to Fresno grew to include an art show and reception that will feature some of Hancock's other artwork and give her the chance to meet with some of the local families to present the portraits. Art sale proceeds will benefit Project Compassion; the event is sponsored by Brotherhood of the Badge. Founded in 2003, Project Compassion's headquarters is the basement of Hancock's home in Manti, Utah -- a rural property where she raises goats. The artist's colorful life is also the subject of a documentary, "Kaziah The Goat Woman," which will be shown at the Fresno show.

Rojas' mother, Debbie Apodaca, said she is impressed by Hancock's work and feels honored to have her son's portrait painted, even though his death is still painfully fresh in her memory. "It's an honor, yet it's kind of sad," she said.

Apodaca said she has no idea what to expect when she sees the portrait. She said she will attend the reception with Michael's stepfather and four sisters.

Butterfield's mother, Robin Butterfield, said the hardest part was deciding what pictures to submit. Now, she can't wait to see the finished portrait -- and meet Hancock.

Both Butterfield and Apodaca said they are prepared for an emotional evening.

Hancock said most portraits take about three days to paint, but some can take a week or more. Each portrait is valued at about $2,000, but the letters and e-mails of gratitude are priceless, she said.

Hancock said she doesn't get to meet many of the families in person and is looking forward to the reception: "I have such respect for these parents who raise children with a desire to serve. ... We live in much too selfish of a world."