For A Fallen Hero... / by Jen Bissu

I had the privilege this past Saturday to give a gift to a noble group of heroes.

It was a gift several months in the making. It was a gift to honor a forgotten hero who was recently remembered.

Now he will always be remembered. He has gained earthly immortality.

And I thank the men and women who gave me the opportunity to do this. I’m better for it...

 Descendants of Firefighter Robert Hamilton unveil Jen Bissu's oil portrait of him at the ceremony.

Descendants of Firefighter Robert Hamilton unveil Jen Bissu's oil portrait of him at the ceremony.

The group of heroes is the Kearny Fire Department, who bravely serve the community of Kearny, NJ. The remembered hero is Robert Hamilton, a firefighter who fell in the line of duty protecting Kearny exactly 77 years before, braving the front lines against a massive brush fire.

A class of firefighters found an old article in an old newspaper. The picture was faded and difficult to make out. The article was brief. Too brief. Especially for a man who gave his life to protect so many.

A dedication was announced, I caught wind of it, and I was moved to offer something from my brush. The company was glad to hear my offer, thank goodness. And so, my fallen muse inspired me to recreate his visage as best as I could.

 Artist Jen Bissu with her oil portrait of fallen hero, Firefighter Robert Hamilton, at the dedication ceremony. 

Artist Jen Bissu with her oil portrait of fallen hero, Firefighter Robert Hamilton, at the dedication ceremony. 

Over the course of several months, I came to know his every line, the crook of his smile, the twinkle in his eyes. I pictured him scratching the side of his nose, laughing heartily, perhaps talking in a bit of a gruff-like tone. What would a veteran of the Spanish-American War and the Great War think at a time of such crisis? How would an Irish immigrant pass his time before the alarm sounded? What kind of a home did he leave behind when he kissed his loving wife for the last time?

For, there is more than a moment in a picture. Much more. There’s a whole story to be worked out. A whole life that has been lived before, during, and after. The trick, you see, is to take that moment and to capture that life, to fill the canvas with it—all the events, all the emotions, all the thoughts, all the deeds.

A man of yesteryear, I conveyed him in blacks, whites, and greys. I added a bit of grit. I dabbed a bit of shine. I smoothed some of those lines, and I restored the vitality a man of his bearing would have possessed. He was jolly and serious when either was needed. He was a man of the world, of this world, and he had experienced the exuberance of matrimony, the satisfaction of achievements, the sadness of regrets, and the horrors of war. A life fully filled.

In that fire station Saturday, surrounded by engines and firefighters and reporters and the community’s—Robert’s community’s—elected leaders, and his family, I felt like a part of something big, bigger than myself. Something that’s transcended time.

On that frigid, windy Saturday afternoon, every brushstroke, every line laid, every angle contemplated, every minute spent, was worth it—for Robert, for Robert’s family, for Robert’s comrades, for Robert’s company, for Robert’s Kearny.

Well worth it.        


- Jen Bissu

 Jen Bissu's oil portrait of fallen hero, Firefighter Robert Hamilton.

Jen Bissu's oil portrait of fallen hero, Firefighter Robert Hamilton.