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I paint heroes: famed historical artist visits SC

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Historical artist Mort Kunstler at South Carolina State Museum Historical artist Mort Kunstler at South Carolina State Museum

"I paint heroes."

Famed artist Mort Kunstler is best known for his Civil War paintings, some of which are currently on display at the South Carolina State Museum in an exhibit called, "For Us the Living." Soft spoken and sweet, Kunstler was at the State Museum Saturday to discuss his paintings and sign autographs.

His namesake portrait of Abraham Lincoln is among 30 paintings and sketch studies included in the exhibit.

"The reason for the title, it is a quote from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address," said Kunstler.

"One of my favorites is Stonewall Jackson because he is such an interesting character and very easy to paint," he said.  "His life story is such an interesting story."

From a simple portrait to a complicated battle scene, hours of research go into each painting.

"I will always go to the site, if there's something to see," he said. "Dealing with historians, I always try to find the key person, the one who is considered the authority of an event or person.  And I will get in touch with the author of the book and they are always happy to help."

Kunstler pays as much attention to detail in his research as he does with his brush strokes.

"I always check the final painting with the person I consider the authority of that particular moment," he said.

Kunstler's research for his Hunley painting brought him to South Carolina twice.

"That's a picture that required two trips to Charleston, one trip to Washington D.C. to check with the authorities at the U.S. Navy Memorial Museum," said Kunstler.

After the research was done and he started putting paint to canvas, Kunstler said the painting took two months to complete.

With more than 300 Civil War paintings and 5,000 total paintings done in his career spanning more than 50 years, Kunstler said he has only one favorite piece.

"I fall in love with every painting," he said with a smile. "So when I'm asked ‘What is my favorite painting?'  I always say it's the one I'm working on at the time."

Kunstler considers himself an artist more than an historian.

From movie posters in the 1970's to inspiring film directors in the 1990's, Kunstler credits his experience working for National Geographic for developing illustration techniques that make paintings look as real as photographs.

"They were the ones that instilled this accuracy and work ethic," he said.  "I'm trying to make a really good picture that tells a story."

Although his work has been published in coffee table books and prints, you don't get the appreciation of the detail in Kunstler's work until you can see the paintings up close.  Visitors to the exhibit can see very brush stroke, eye lash, and hair in a horse's mane.

"I love painting.  It's not even about living the Civil War or one side or the other. I just love painting pictures."

In a few years, fans of Kunstler's work will have to get used to seeing his paintings of a different subject.

"I'm planning on having my last Civil War print come out on the 150th anniversary if Appomattox, the surrender of the Civil War," he said.  After that, he said he's been commissioned to paint scenes from the Revolutionary War.

"I have literally painted the history of our country," he said. "I hope if I'm still alive I'll continue pushing a paintbrush because I love it so much."

When the exhibit closes April 7th at the State Museum, it will move to Reading, PA to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.

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