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A soldier keeps watch in this painting by Spc. John Lenaghan.
A soldier keeps watch in this painting by Spc. John Lenaghan. (Photo courtesy of John Lenaghan)
A soldier keeps watch in this painting by Spc. John Lenaghan.
A soldier keeps watch in this painting by Spc. John Lenaghan. (Photo courtesy of John Lenaghan)
This painting captures the moment after an explosion in eastern Baghdad earlier this year.
This painting captures the moment after an explosion in eastern Baghdad earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of John Lenaghan)

Spc. John Lenaghan, a soldier assigned to the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment in East Baghdad, helps support his unit and its leading officers through administrative duties.

However, Lenaghan, 31, a husband and father to two young girls, fills his downtime in Iraq with a productive and meditative hobby: painting. The soldier has painted several portraits depicting soldier life in Iraq.

It all began when his wife, Molly, encouraged him to go to art school, years before he joined the Army, when others close to him viewed it as a folly, he said.

“I started painting when I was about 21,” the Faribault, Minn., native said by phone from Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah. “She was the reason I went to art school — she was the only one who always saw that I had the ability to do it.”

Lenaghan attended a now-defunct art school for two years, where he trained in oil-based paintings. He then taught oil painting at the school for three years.

His paintings from Iraq depict both U.S. soldier and Iraqi civilian life and the complexity that comes from the coexistence of those worlds.

“The ones I have painted so far are the ones I have wanted to paint the whole time I have been here,” he said. “I didn’t bring the paints with me when I initially came, but my wife sent them to me in July because I have a lot of downtime to paint.”

He paints from pictures taken by his fellow soldiers while out on patrol and from his own collection of photos from missions in Baghdad.

One painting captures a moment after an explosion in eastern Baghdad earlier this year. It shows the criss-crossing electrical wires that dangle over so many of Iraq’s streets, with billowing smoke from the explosion in the background as troops in Humvees stand sentry and Iraqi passersby go about their daily lives.

“I love that one,” he said. “I’m not sure there are any words for that one — it’s just a really good portrait.”

Another painting shows a calm setting with Iraqis herding sheep with a Bradley fighting vehicle in the background. The portrayal shows, again, how Iraqis carry on while war persists in their backyards, Lenaghan said.

But he also does still life and sketches not based on photos.

Lenaghan said his art school instruction was difficult — “much harder than the Army.” Students followed orders from the instructors or left the school.

“I had to paint fast, keep clean and she would teach me art history as I was painting,” he said of his teacher. “There was no questioning … I learned discipline and how to keep going even when you felt like quitting."

During his first year he was allowed to use only four colors: black, white, red and green. He said he learned many life lessons that have helped him with his family and being a soldier in a war zone.

Lenaghan’s unit, a part of the 1st Cavalry Division, operates in one of the most restive corners of Baghdad, directly adjacent to Sadr City.

He and his unit have roughly four months left on their deployment to Iraq. As for Lenaghan, he has 18 months left in the Army and has opted to leave at the urging of his wife and daughters.

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