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Afghan life captured in art

The Baltimore Sun

When Stephen Verges went to Afghanistan as an Army National Guard corporal in 2003, he entered a world rife with conflict, violence, suspicion and misery.

Yet much of his time there was spent with Afghan tribespeople, and during those interactions, Verges was struck by the warmth and hospitality they exhibited while living a hard existence. The 39-year-old Joppa resident said the exchanges were tentative at first, with simple acts such as being offered tea and engaging in small talk, but grew into having meals together.

"As time went on, they offered us more and more," Verges said. "Eventually I stopped eating my [military-issued meals] and ate dinner with them.

"They accepted us as their neighbors," he said.

After Verges returned to the United States, those experiences were renewed when he thumbed through photographs taken by a fellow soldier with whom he served in Afghanistan. One photo in particular - a shot of an Army medic tending to an Afghan child - captured the essence of his experience.

So Verges painted a portrait of the scene in the photograph, the first step in what turned out to be a series of paintings portraying the bond that he and the special forces team members experienced with the Afghan people.

"I want these paintings I do to represent the human agenda of the [Afghan] people, without showing anything that negates their kindnesses to us," he said.

The paintings caught the attention of Afghan diplomats, who have invited Verges to display his work as part of the Afghanistan Independence Day celebration Aug. 28 at their embassy in Washington.

The exhibit shows a side of the Afghan people that is often overlooked, said Fazel Rahman Fazel, the political counselor to the ambassador.

"Steve shows the Afghan people in nonviolent, peaceful, settings," Fazel said. "He paints men on donkeys, and Afghans watching Army soldiers as they help Afghan children. His work is a truer depiction of the Afghan people than some of the ones I typically see."

Verges' interest in art was ignited when he was growing up in New York City. His stepfather, Benjamin Sonnenberg Jr., had an extensive art collection in their home, sparking in Verges an early appreciation for art.

"It was there in the house where we lived and I couldn't help but notice it," Verges said. "Art was everywhere."

Verges' mother, Susan Snodgrass, is a well-known doll-maker, he said. Looking back, Verges said, he seemed destined to become an artist.

Verges has been painting for more than a decade. His first endeavor was painting expressionistic scenes on recycled items such as cigar boxes.

"People suggested that I let the boxes be my gimmick, but I wanted to do something bigger, not something for the bathroom, or something that you hang above your dog's picture," he said.

He then began painting landscapes and urban scenes on canvasses.

In 1997, after working for years as a bicycle courier in Washington, Verges wanted to do something different and travel, so he joined the Army National Guard. In 2003, a call came down for volunteers to accompany a special forces team to Afghanistan for an eight-month deployment, working as a liaison. Verges volunteered.

In February, Verges completed his duty with the guard and left the military. Not long after, on a visit to the fellow soldier, Verges saw the photo that sent him on a new path. He expects that his exhibit will comprise 15 pieces, nine of which are complete. The paintings range in size from 16 by 20 inches to 4 by 5 feet.

Some are intended to replicate the photos as closely as possible. But for others, Verges wanted to create different imagery, so he melded elements from different photos. One painting replaced a grenade bag in one photo with a small girl from another.

Yet some of the paintings focus on the military conflict. One painting depicts a soldier in a Humvee standing behind a mounted machine gun, with an American flag sticking up on the side of the vehicle.

Verges' time in Afghanistan was made up of military duties and cultural encounters. He is striving to portray recollections of both in his art.

"We were there for a specific purpose, part of it was about our mission, and part of it involved the cultural exchange," said Verges, who lives with his wife and two daughters in an 18th-century home.

"Both things were equally important to me, and I hope that comes out in my art series."

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