Transition is a constant theme in Sally Lincoln’s art.

Some of her biggest projects have centered around people whose lives are changing, from wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, to Sudanese refugees to New Orleans citizens displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

“Those periods in your life are when you turn back into yourself and take a look,” Lincoln said. “You have past experiences. Some of it is going to serve you. Some of it is not. You kind of consciously or unconsciously sort through those things.

“There’s something about the way that absorbs your whole being that appeals to me.”

 

Gaining inspiration

Lincoln is originally from Boston, but moved to Denver after living in England for 10 years. Thirty years ago she took a painting course at the Arts Student League in Denver with renowned painter Mark Daley.

After working a full time job, Lincoln would go to class at night. She’d then spend all day Sunday applying what she’d learn throughout the week.

She originally wanted to paint landscapes, but the class mostly dealt with painting models. She eventually discovered portrait painting, where some of her most memorable projects would center. Her first trip was to a Jamaican fishing village.

Later, after hearing a National Public Radio Report about medics serving in the conflicts in the Middle East, Lincoln decided she wanted to work with veterans.

“I heard an NPR report about medics and how they got so good that if they could get to someone after an explosion, if they had a pulse and were breathing, they had a 95-percent chance of survival,” Lincoln said. “The medics (now) are unbelievable. Their process is just immaculate under very stressful conditions. But, it means that people with terrible injuries were surviving.

“And I thought, THIS is going to be the story of this war.”

 

Saluting our troops

Lincoln wanted to capture the soldiers in a state of transition from the war, to being injured to coming back to life.

She struggled to get permission from military hospitals until finally a Wounded Warriors unit in San Antonio agreed to let her come and paint portraits.

There, Lincoln painted portraits of soldiers with varying injuries and backgrounds. She asked each soldier just four questions: What is their name? What is their rank? What is their age? And Where did they serve?

“A lot of them talked to me and a few didn’t want to talk,” Lincoln said. “I just accepted whatever they were giving to me.”

In 19 days, she painted a portraits of 100 soldiers — men and women who had all been injured. She compiled the paintings in a book titled “Sucking It Up: American Soldiers in 2008.”

The book looked to capture the soldiers as people, and shed a different light on each person featured.

One soldier, Sterling Dunn, told Lincoln that normally he and the other vets only get attention about their recuperation and being in the military.

Lincoln said that Dunn was appreciative of Lincoln capturing the soldiers as human beings.

“It was so cool to be able to look at the whole person,” she said. “The project was worth working for. It’s probably one of the things I’ll be proudest of when my life is ending.”

Lincoln still has some of the portraits. Soldiers offered her the portraits back after she painted them.

What she really gained from the experience was a new appreciation for the men and women who serve our country.

“It gave me a really enhanced appreciation of your average American soldier,” she said. “The soldiers were awesome.”

 

Prayers of the refugee

After working with the wounded soldiers, Lincoln turned her attention to more people in a state of transition.

This time, she’d venture to Africa to paint portraits of Sudanese refugees who fled their homeland during the genocide in Darfur.

After finding the first refugee newspaper on Christmas Eve, Lincoln reached out to its editor about her idea.

The editor quickly encouraged Lincoln to go to Africa.

“The editor immediately wrote back and told me to come,” she said. “I was there in a little over a month.”

Lincoln spent two months in Africa in 2009 and another month in 2010. She painted portraits of refugees and gave them the paintings. She also taught drawing classes for mostly kids, though adults participated as well.

The refugees were extremely welcoming and gracious, Lincoln said.

“There was a coffee shop a refugee owned,” Lincoln explained. “He would never let me pay. I painted his wife and he would never let me pay for my coffee. He always had his wife make it specially for me, just the way I like it.”

While in Africa, Lincoln saw just how tough the refugees had it. The food rations were limited and most families received only 14 liters of water each day.

The experienced gave Lincoln a different experience, one she wished she’d had earlier in life.

“I wish I could have gone when I was 15,” she said. “You don’t get it when you’re that young. You just don’t get what it means to be wasteful. You don’t get it until you see it.”

 

The reward

Lincoln didn’t make a book out of her trip to Africa, nor did she do that with her portraits of those in New Orleans.

Instead, she relished giving the people something intimate and meaningful.

“There’s something about that intimacy, and that reaction from people standing behind me painting in public that ... wow,” Lincoln said. “I think the appeal of making it a part of regular people’s lives is appealing to me.”

Fifteen months after Katrina, Lincoln painted displaced New Orleans citizens as they stood in line to get unemployment benefits and help finding new jobs.

The artist also painted portraits of people in Cuba. Again, she offered the portraits to those whom she worked with.

This time, however, many gave back the portraits.

“There, they got it,” she said. “I came back with about half of them. I did 33 there. People asked me to take it back to the United States with me. It was almost as good as them going.”

 

Looking ahead

Now a days, Lincoln has some new ideas about capturing life.

Before painting she used to draw people on the subway in Boston.

“There’s all kinds of different people there,” she said. “Everybody rides the subway.”

She hopes to capture the small connection that seemingly unrelated people on the subway share.

Whereas before people would talk to each other, read a newspaper or a book or sit in quiet contemplation, now people are on their phones.

That said. The connection still exists.

“To me, now there’s all these situations of ambient sociability,” Lincoln said. “There are actually discreet little relationships going on between these people in public space. I can’t really put it into words.

“That is deeply interesting to me.”

Lincoln is also looking to get more people drawing and painting.

She’s bringing the national Urban Sketchers organization to Pueblo, with hopes that The Steel City will someday be a local chapter of the organization.

The group is free and meets at 2 p.m. on Sundays mostly at The Hanging Tree Cafe.

“It’s about going out and painting and drawing your own city from life,” Lincoln said. “It’s just for enjoyment. It’s a community activity.

“I’m very excited about setting us up as a chapter.”

llyons@chieftain.com; @luke_lyons14