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Portraits for the Homefront: The Story of Elizabeth Black Premieres Thursday, November 7, 2013, 8 p.m., WQED-TV

October 29, 2013

George Hazimanolis


Portraits for the Homefront: The Story of Elizabeth Black
Thursday, November 7, 2013
8 p.m.

PITTSBURGH - Leaving a promising art career behind, Pittsburgh native Elizabeth Black volunteered with the American Red Cross during World War II. She proposed a fascinating plan to sketch more than 1,000 portraits of soldiers, sailors and airmen in England, France, Luxemburg, Holland, Germany, and Belgium. Seven decades later, her son John retraces his mother’s footsteps in her hometown to learn more about her talent, service and legacy.

Portraits for the Homefront: The Story of Elizabeth Black premieres Thursday, November 7 at 8 p.m. on WQED-TV.

Elizabeth Black’s Art Career

Elizabeth Black was an up-and-coming artist in 1930s Pittsburgh. After recognition at Carrick and Peabody high schools, Miss 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.

Her crowning achievement in Pittsburgh was the selection of Miss Black 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.

Elizabeth Black’s Service

At the height of World War II, Miss Black volunteered with 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 donuts, coffee and a smiling face to war-weary troops. Hoping to be more than a hostess and utilize her talent Miss 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 Miss Black special assignment status.

For two years Miss 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 Miss Black’s journal, a fascinating collection of appreciative messages, poems and well wishes to the talented and charming Pittsburgh artist. Miss Black completed more than 1,000 sketches. The originals were sent to wives, mothers and other family members throughout the United States. At some point, Miss Black took quality photographs of about 100 sketches to keep a record of her work.

In Cherbourg, France, Miss 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, Mrs. 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 now grown, Mrs. 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.

Elizabeth Black’s Legacy

In 2010, John Black and his wife Kay of Germantown, Tennessee received an unexpected surprise: his mother’s footlocker filled with the 100 photographs of her sketches, images of Miss Black standing before the easel as fascinated soldiers watched, scrap books, news clippings and other memorabilia. The trunk had been stored, unexamined, for decades in a family member’s garage in California. In 2011, John Black connected with WQED executive producer David Solomon, who began work on the documentary and a companion interactive outreach project.

Portraits for the Homefront: The Story of Elizabeth Black explores Miss Black’s lost art career, features interviews with elderly veterans who encountered the artist on the battlefield, and captures memorable scenes of amazed and appreciative families finally receiving portraits that never arrived. 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, WQED will mark the sketches accordingly on the site.

NOTE TO WORKING PRESS: High-resolution images, DVD screeners and interviews are available by request to George Hazimanolis at 412-622-1366 or ghazimanolis@wqed.org.

WQED Pittsburgh has a proud history of honors, including 140 National and Mid-Atlantic Emmy® Awards, an Academy Award, and many, many others, including two Emmy® Awards for Station Excellence. WQED was founded in 1954 as the nation’s first community-supported broadcaster. WQED changes lives by creating and sharing outstanding public media that educates, entertains and inspires. It is the parent company of WQED-TV (PBS); WQED: The Neighborhood Channel; WQED: The Create Channel; WQED Showcase; Classical WQED-FM 89.3/Pittsburgh; Classical WQEJ-FM 89.7/Johnstown; the Pittsburgh Concert Channel at WQED-HD2 (89.3-2FM) and online at www.wqedfm.org; local and national television and radio productions; WQED Interactive (www.wqed.org) and iQ: smartmedia, WQED’s Educational initiative (www.wqed.org/edu).

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Additional documents:
Portraits for the Homefront: The Story of Elizabeth Black - Photo captions and credits.



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