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UW Student Commissioned to Paint Work for 75th Pearl Harbor Day Anniversary

July 14, 2016
woman sitting on scaffold with painting in background
UW art major Cassidy Newkirk, of Rock River, poses with the early stages of her oil painting of the USS Arizona. The finished painting will be unveiled during the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day and will commemorate the six remaining survivors of the famous Navy ship that was attacked and led to America’s entering World War II. (UW Photo)

There was a time Cassidy Newkirk, a self-described “ranch kid,” was told by her high school teachers she would never amount to much pursuing her love of art.

Now, the University of Wyoming art major, from Rock River, has been commissioned to paint the USS Arizona, the iconic American Navy ship that was attacked and destroyed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. The painting, commissioned by the Arizona Final Salute Foundation, will be unveiled in a 75th anniversary ceremony in Honolulu to honor the six remaining survivors, all burn victims, including Donald Gay Stratton, the 94-year-old grandfather of Nikki Stratton, website coordinator for the UW Foundation.

“There will be 41 prints made (signifying 1941) signed by me and the six survivors,” says Newkirk, who started the 8-foot x 6-foot oil painting in May in UW’s Visual Arts Building. “They will be numbered 1-41 and will be sold for $1,177 each. That number represents how many men were entombed or lost during the attack.”

“When we embarked on this 75th anniversary journey, we knew we wanted a unique painting done. One, to memorialize the 1,177 lost that day. And two, to help raise money to send the last seven (at the time, now six) survivors back to Honolulu for a hero’s welcome they deserve,” explains Nikki Stratton. “I don’t think there was ever a doubt of who would paint that. All of the survivors had seen the picture of Cassidy’s work, and they were on board.”

It Started with a Gift

The work referenced by Stratton is a small oil painting Newkirk created of the USS Arizona -- the ship sinking, with only the iconic superstructure visible and engulfed in smoke. Stratton had asked Newkirk if she would create a painting Stratton could give to her grandfather as a Christmas gift.

However, the painting was delayed as both Newkirk and Stratton were involved with the UW women’s basketball team. Stratton was director of basketball operations at the time while Newkirk continues to serve as the team’s manager.

“Originally, it was supposed to be for Christmas, but school and basketball came first, so I ended up giving it to him for my grandparents’ 65th wedding anniversary,” Stratton says. “I can honestly say that I have seen my grandpa tear up only a few times in my life. He was absolutely speechless at the work Cassidy did. It captured the Arizona so perfectly.”

According to the book “The Men of the USS Arizona,” Donald Stratton was a Seaman 1st Class in the U.S. Navy. In the book, Stratton recounts the initial moments of the attack.

“Everything was happening so quickly. I didn’t have time to think,” Stratton recalled, in his book entry. “We fired on the high altitude bombers, but could not reach them. Our shells were bursting before they ever reached the bombers’ altitude.

“Shortly after 8 a.m., we were hit on top of No. 3 turret, and it bounced over the side. Another bomb went through the afterdeck and didn’t explode. The third bomb hit up above, on the starboard side. It was big. It shook the ship like an earthquake,” Stratton continues. “Shortly thereafter, there was a huge explosion, raising the ship nearly out of the water followed by a ball of flame that went 500 to 600 feet in the air. It engulfed the whole foremast where we were and the entire bow of the ship. Meanwhile, inside the (anti-aircraft) directory, we tried to shield ourselves from the blaze by hiding under some of the equipment.”

elderly man holding painting
Donald Stratton, 94, poses with the small oil painting of the USS Arizona created by UW art student Cassidy Newkirk and given to him by his granddaughter, Nikki. (Nikki Stratton Photo)

“Nikki called me with the proposal to make a painting for the Arizona Final Salute Foundation,” Newkirk says. “I was honored. It’s interesting how certain things work out. Nikki asked me Oct. 17, 2015. The Arizona was commissioned to be built Oct. 17, 1916. I never believe in coincidences. I only believe in fate.”

A Work in Progress

When she was younger, Newkirk learned the techniques of oil painting from her great-grandmother before she passed.  

“My first painting was a Manet water lily with a bridge. I painted it when I was 9,” she recalls.

When she reached high school, Newkirk says she did not paint on her own; only in class. It was still too painful for her to paint after the loss of her great-grandmother, who she had shared her passion with for so long. And she didn’t receive much encouragement from her teachers. That changed when she came to UW.

“I had come from a school that looked down at what I did and told me that I had no future in art, to an environment where everyone believed in the power of art,” she says. “I don’t know where I would be without my professors. They had such belief in all of us, even when we didn’t believe in our own abilities. They pushed me to get back to my passion and encouraged, and still encourage me in my journey to achieve my dreams.”

Patrick Kikut, a UW art lecturer, gave her a book, titled “Art and Fear,” during Newkirk’s first art class.

“It was the first time I had seriously picked up a brush in five years. He must have seen something in me, because he helped me back on my painting feet,” Newkirk says. “That book changed my life. It talks about how much artists were doubted and how it took strength and determination to overcome them. The book reminded me of who I was, and I slowly found my passion once again.”

For her current painting in progress, Newkirk did extensive research, recreating more than 3,000 photographs of the USS Arizona to use as a reference. She also had her dad and boyfriend put together a model of the USS Arizona -- and then cut it in half so she had a miniature view of the ship’s superstructure.

“I paint in silhouettes. Imagine a box. I work from the back of the box forward. I start in the background with the sky, then the ship and then the people,” she says. “The first layer is simplistic. I get the base coat down and then add details. I work in sections, and often paint paintings two or three times before the final product.”

Additionally, UW student Jacob “Jake” Berg served as a model that recreated all sailors and, most memorable, the burn victims. Newkirk used special effects makeup and says “I’ve never seen a burn victim. But, it helps to be a ranch kid. I see a lot of raw meat.”

For a photo shoot, Berg was covered with special effects gelatin, fake blood, ash and charcoal to create the desired effect of a burn victim.

When Newkirk talked with Donald Stratton about his experience, Stratton described to her that his legs resembled hamburger, and his skin peeled off his arms as if he was removing a sock.

“It burned his tattoos and part of his ear. He has no fingerprints,” Newkirk says. “Sixty-five percent of his body was burned.”

Newkirk, herself, comes from a military family. Her great-grandfather fought in Okinawa during World War II; her grandfather was in the Navy; and her uncle flew medevac helicopters during Vietnam. He was shot down 11 times and only wounded once.

man in makeup to look like burn victim
UW student Jacob “Jake” Berg poses in makeup to recreate the look of a burn victim on the USS Arizona Dec. 7, 1941. (Cassidy Newkirk Photo)

A Touch of the Supernatural

For Newkirk and others involved, this experience has been a bit otherworldly. And, rather than speak in hushed, embarrassed whispers, they speak matter-of-factly about the strange experiences that have occurred during this journey and say the happenings have even brought a degree of comfort.

While she worked on the painting in a second-floor room in the Visual Arts Building, Newkirk says it was not uncommon for the room to turn smoky, and smell of gasoline and oil.

“People don’t believe us. Nikki was with us as a witness,” Newkirk says. “She said she smelled the smoke.”

Stratton confirmed this, saying the elements were most pronounced during the “burn photo shoot” with Berg.

“While shooting, we smelled burning oil, smoke, fire and salty air,” Stratton says. “You could taste it in the air. Then, it would be gone. It was almost as if the lost sailors were making sure we were ‘doing right by them.’”

When the photos were developed, small faces of sailors could be seen in the darkness surrounding Berg’s depiction of a Navy man suffering from burns.

At times, Newkirk says she also felt like she was standing in cold water up to her knees.

“I always felt I had a connection to this ship,” Newkirk says. “I was never sure why, but I do now.”

Newkirk, a creative writing minor, plans to write a book about her experience with the commissioned painting. She has set a deadline of September to finish the painting and hopes to host a show in November at the Albany County Fairgrounds. In addition to the painting, she would like to display the photos she took and World War II artifacts, including those belonging to Donald Stratton.  

“I think I’ve been given this gift in order to paint the stories of those who no longer have voices. These angels found me somehow so they (USS Arizona sailors) wouldn’t be forgotten,” Newkirk says. “If I could be compared or put in a category of people, it would be this generation, the greatest generation. They are the reason I paint.”

Of her work and the December ceremony, she adds, “This original will be unveiled, and I hope it will remain in Pearl Harbor. I want it to stay there with them.”

For more information on how to help the remaining survivors travel back to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary, go to www.arizonafinalsalute.com.


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