1930s Pittsburgh artist, Black, volunteered with the American Red Cross to sketch World War II soldiers throughout Europe. Her work with the relief organization as well as her lasting legacy during this time period will be shown on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. on WQED-TV.
In an effort to place existing portraits in the hands of soldiers’ descendants, WQED has launched an interactive photo gallery of Black’s work. The artwork can be found at wqed.org/ww2portraits.
Elizabeth Black’s Service
At the height of World War II, Miss Black volunteered with the American Red Cross and was assigned to the Clubmobile division. The retrofitted buses and trucks, staffed and driven by women, traveled to field camps throughout Europe providing donuts, coffee and a smiling face to war-weary troops. Hoping to be more than a hostess and utilize her talent Miss Black proposed a unique project to sketch soldiers and send the portraits to worried families in the United States. The Red Cross accepted the plan, giving Miss Black special assignment status.
For two years Miss Black sketched her way across Europe, choosing her subjects through a lottery and completing as many as a dozen portraits a day. Every soldier, sailor and airman signed their sketches, often including endearments to loved ones back home. They also autographed Miss Black’s journal, a fascinating collection of appreciative messages, poems and well wishes to the talented and charming Pittsburgh artist. Miss Black completed more than 1,000 sketches. The originals were sent to wives, mothers and other family members throughout the United States. At some point, Miss Black took quality photographs of about 100 sketches to keep a record of her work.
In Cherbourg, France, Miss Black met a naval commander from Tennessee who ironically shared her last name. She married Julian Black at the American Cathedral in Paris in 1945. After the war, the couple eventually settled in Waynesboro, Virginia. With her art career nearly dormant, Mrs. Black devoted her time to raising sons George and John while helping her husband start a business. After Julian Black’s passing and with her sons now grown, Mrs. Black moved to Berkeley, California and later Portland, Oregon. She resumed portrait work to a far lesser extent than her successful Pittsburgh years. In 1983, Elizabeth Black had a heart attack and died at 71.