Like so many of us, Jean O’Keefe avidly reads the obituaries.

But she does more than just read. She guards memories.

Since 2010, O’Keefe has scoured newspaper death notices for a specific kind of obituary, drawn in by photographs of smiling young men and women of another era, handsomely dressed in sheepskin-lined bomber suits, battle fatigues or Army nurse whites.

She’s drawn in by tiny American flags and Purple Hearts and respectful tributes crafted by loved ones, such as “She answered the call to serve her country overseas,” or “Another soldier of our Greatest Generation passed away.”

O’Keefe of Hopkins has clipped out more than 200 World War II obituaries, placing them one by one into an expanding manila folder. One day she wondered, “What does one do with the collected dead?”

For O’Keefe, who’s an artist, the answer is a 60- by 24-inch triptych collage titled “Arsenal of Democracy,” part of a juried art show at the Hopkins Center for the Arts through Oct. 28.

The title comes from a slogan used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a radio broadcast in December 1940. In the speech, the president promised to provide military supplies to the Allies, while our country stayed out of the actual fight. That plan changed dramatically, of course, a year later.

The collage’s panels are shaped like the letters “U,” “S” and “A,” weighted in heavy acrylic and designed to represent combat, O’Keefe said. The “U” is painted red to represent “blood on the beach,” inspired by a red stone she picked up on Omaha Beach in 2008. “S” is swirling white, suggesting a cloudy sky filled with fiery smoke. “A” is a vibrant blue, “kind of a sky during an air battle.”

Each of the three letters contains 30 or more pieces of Minnesota obituaries, plus quotes and other acknowledgments of military service, including a Fort Snelling registration stamp.

This is not O’Keefe’s first nod to World War II. “Ghost,” a 72- by 20-inch triptych of a B-17 bomber, an homage to war correspondent Ernie Pyle, hung at the Hopkins gallery in April.

“Ghosts were wandering in the sky peering for us in our cringing hideout,” wrote Pyle in “Ernie Pyle’s War,” by James Tobin. “Ghosts were everywhere, and their hordes were multiplying … and you are little boys again, lost in the dark.”

While her work veers into the political — “Arsenal” includes the George C. Marshall quote, “The only way humans can win a war is to prevent it,” for example — her intent is practical.

“They all are soon going to be gone and their obituaries shouldn’t go in the garbage, or be used to clean fish or change oil,” said O’Keefe, the mother of two adult sons, one of whom serves as an Army attaché in Montenegro.

O’Keefe, who was “two years, two months and two days old on D-Day,” said she has always had “a passion for the history of our heroes.”

When son Matt was 11, he started to struggle in school so O’Keefe, a single mother, “took TV out of his life” and he discovered the library, particularly its World War II history section.

“I remember him coming into the kitchen one day talking about the Marines in the Pacific,” she said. “He was just devouring this stuff.” Matt enlisted at 17.

She, too, began to devour World War II history and is working on a novel about the war’s final weeks.

About seven years ago, O’Keefe’s attention turned to the obituary pages, specifically to the servicemen and servicewomen whose final stories were told there.

She was struck that after lives often spanning 90 years or more, the photos almost universally selected were of fresh-faced youths representing all branches of the service. “Families realized that this was important to who they were,” she said.

Steve Ozone, an award-winning photographer, served as a juror for the annual fall show. He called O’Keefe’s work “high quality,” and a good opportunity to honor veterans.

Juror Chholing Taha, a painter and textile artist, said “Arsenal of Democracy” demonstrates “a very high level of craft.”

But more than that, Taha said, “I was looking at it as a survival piece and an opportunity to see our continuing war even today. A good art piece gives you an opportunity to reassess your responses to things that happen in life. We have to learn from it.”

O’Keefe, who spent about four months making the piece, hopes that it will move next to a public space, so that more people can study it.

“I just believe it needs to be recognized,” she said. “These kids did what they knew needed doing. I cried making it. I cry now.”

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com