City Hall has a new art gallery, and it opens with an exhibition of Jason Grow’s portraits of Gloucester World War II veterans, which he has donated to the city.

Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken and the Committee for the Arts, led by chairwoman Judith Hoglander, have established a small art gallery space to display these large-scale veterans portraits. In the future, there will be other art exhibits curated by the Committee for the Arts in this new space.

“We are very excited to have converted this City Hall area on the first floor near the auditor’s office into a new gallery and we hope that visitors will enjoy this new exhibition space,” the mayor said.

The veterans’ portraits were first displayed publicly when Grow curated an exhibit of his “Veterans Portraits” project at City Hall in 2015, and again at Cape Ann Museum in 2017.  He has since donated 46 of his photos to the City of Gloucester, and similarly donated photos of Rockport, Manchester and Essex veterans to their particular communities. Each is accompanied by a short of biographer of the subject.

Grow’s project emanated from his desire to honor the local veterans in light of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015. He reached out to find as many local World War II veterans as he could through organizations, the press and word of mouth.

After earning a journalism degree from San Francisco State University, Grow worked as a newspaper photographer for the San Jose Mercury News before turning freelance in 1996. In fact, he met his wife Sarah at a forest fire in central California. They later moved to Cape Ann where they are raising their family.

“Fewer and fewer of these heroes remain,” Grow wrote in a project statement. “Cape Ann’s Greatest Generation filled the ranks of every branch of service from the Army, Navy, Marines, Army Air Corps, Seabees and Coast Guard to the Red Cross, WAVEs and WACs. This project will ensure that their stories and portraits are preserved, remembered and honored.” 

He noted that Gloucester has a long and proud connection with military service. The oldest seaport in the nation sent 5,665 young men and women to serve during World War II, of which 119 never returned.

In all, Grow photographed 59 men and women, then ranging in age from 86 to 98 years old.

“Some folks just wanted nothing to do with the project, but eventually word started getting around and the list began to grow. The ask was simple: I would come to their home, make their portrait and ask them a few questions about their service, their lives and families, and for that I would give them a framed copy of the photograph for them or their family,” he said.

Grow said he wanted to capture their essence and their strength.

“It is my hope that these photographs would serve as an enduring, publicly displayed, recognition of the service these men and women gave to their country and their place in the fabric and history of our city,” he said.

As Grow began to assemble the images back in 2015, he said he realized that they needed to be displayed publicly and the mayor agreed. More than 300 people attended the public reception when the first exhibition opened at City Hall. Grow said it was “overwhelmingly touching” to watch these men and women show their portraits to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years met up again,” Grow said.   The best part of it was seeing the looks on their faces as they looked at their portraits.” 

But since the two public exhibitions, the photographs became a six-foot stack of framed prints, gathering dust in his crowded office.

“There remained a longer term conundrum — what to do with them. They needed a home,” Grow said. “The only real solution was to donate them back to the community.”

For the project link, visit www.jasongrow.com/PORTFOLIO/WWII-VETERANS/thumbs.

Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-675-2706, or at gmccarthy@gloucestertimes.com.