, Newburyport, MA


June 27, 2014

Remembering the fallen

Seabrook boy finds comfort in Salem artist's portrait of his soldier dad

A snake dangles from a girl’s neck. A UFO appears above mountains in the distance. Ghostly wings sprout from a boy’s shoulders.

As realistic as Jill Pabich’s oil portraits can be, they also frequently teem with touches of the fantastic, mystical or extraordinary.

One of the Salem artist’s newest works — “Nate and Keegan Hollis” — is the same in that regard, as it features a vivid, if puzzling, cardinal in flight.

What’s different about this painting is its inspiration.

Pabich recently answered a call for volunteer artists from Snowball Express, a Texas organization that supports the children of military men and women who have died on active duty — children like Keegan Hollis, who lost his father, Nate, in 2012.

Snowball Express wanted artists to produce portraits of the soldiers for their families. Pabich thought that sounded perfect. Not only had she been doing portraits since a hand injury curtailed much of her earlier mural work, she had been wanting to do something charitable.

“I had a couple friends who were in the war in Iraq,” she said. “I just felt I wanted to do something to give back.”

Pabich got in touch with Snowball, and they sent contact information for the Hollis family, including Keegan, 10, and his aunt Lisa Hollis, who adopted him after his father died. They live in Seabrook.

Deployed by the Army to Afghanistan, Nate Hollis was traveling in an armored Stryker vehicle outside Omar Zai when an improvised bomb went off, killing three of his fellow soldiers and causing irreparable damage to his feet.

Hollis was still using a wheelchair — was sitting in it at the moment, actually — when he was stabbed 14 times in the head and torso during a dispute in Olympia, Wash., more than two years later, in 2012. He’d been stationed there while he recuperated and was set to be done with the Army later that month.

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