Dave Sopha stopped counting the poppies he was painting when he hit 120,000. Each is unique and each a symbol of something bigger.
You can see the majority of them in the most important mural he’s ever painted.
“Portraits of Honour” depicts all 158 soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan.
He finished it in 2011, eventually taking it on a seven-month cross-country tour.
He estimates hundreds of thousands saw it including the families of soldiers who died in older peacekeeping missions. Their stories touched a nerve.
“By the time I got home I realized something had to be done to tell the stories of the peacekeepers,” he said. “Their bodies were never even brought home, so they never got the Highway of Heroes and all the honours shown our troops in Afghanistan.”
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So instead of taking a break, he went back to work.
He did the math and found 120 Canadians had lost their lives in far off places like Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Finding their pictures has proven difficult.
“There’s 27 men that died in Cyprus and all I have is eight right now,” Sopha said.
He’s hoping the garrisons can help him out. He won’t contact the families directly, he said, to respect their privacy.
But still, he’s determined to finish it.
“It’s a passion I can’t let go of now,” he said. “My wife says it’s an obsession. I’ll take a painting home to work on it there.”
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Even if you haven’t seen “Portraits of Honour” you’ve likely driven past Sopha’s previous work — or ridden inside it.
For almost 40 years, he air-brushed city buses across the country. It was good work and it paid well.
Now, he’s using that money to finance his work. His cross-country trip was paid for by the Kinsmen, but everything else has fallen on him.
“Canvas isn’t cheap, and oil isn’t cheap and paint brushes are certainly not cheap.”
Over the past year he hasn’t been home for a single weekend. He takes his work on the road to showcase at arenas and for service clubs.
His problem is that he rarely says no and while some offer to pay for his expenses, most don’t.
So, he’s cashed in his GIC’s and RRSP’s and over the past seven years has spent “somewhere in around 800-thousand dollars.”
Now, he has his daughter handle the finances but he’s still in the hole and is desperate to continue his projects. He hopes to get financing to build a museum to showcase his work. Then all he has to do is worry about the work.
“The more I get done, the happier I am,” he says. “If I can finish a face, finish a painting, I’m happy.”