Throughout her career, St. Paul artist Pat Benincasa has worked in heft. She’s created oversized paintings, massive metal sculptures, even a seven-ton glass-and-steel skylight that hangs over the Grand Stair Hall in the Minnesota Judicial Center.
But the creation that fills the acclaimed artist with the deepest satisfaction is a mere inch and a half in size.
“This is the joy of my being,” said Benincasa, who lives near Macalester College and has a large studio adjacent to her home.
“I didn’t know something so small could touch so many lives. It’s gone around the world and found a life of its own.”
For a dozen years, Benincasa’s medal of Joan of Arc has been worn on dog tags by thousands of American servicemen and servicewomen, carried into chemotherapy suites and recovery centers, and clutched by people facing grave personal crises.
“Joan is for anyone who must fortify their warrior spirit,” said Benincasa, 67, an energetic woman with navy blue hair and tattooed forearms. “She belongs to anybody who ever had to do something scary and big.”
As the war in Iraq heated up during the second Bush administration, Benincasa was in the midst of putting Joan of Arc on a seven-foot canvas, part of her series of oversized portraits of saints she produced while working at Hill Murray High School in Maplewood.
“I was always attracted to the troubled saints, the badass saints. I love them fiercely,” said Benincasa, who began studying the canonized and martyred in her Catholic childhood.
“There’s something about Joan that’s not about religion. It’s about grit, purpose, truth.”
A peasant girl who followed divine guidance to lead the French army, only to be burned at the stake at 19, Joan’s tenacity was on Benincasa’s mind as she watched then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the news. Rumsfeld was confronted by a soldier who asked why troops had to rummage in junkyards to armor their underequipped vehicles.
“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want,” Rumsfeld replied.
“I went ballistic that young people willing to put their lives on the line were not given the protection they needed to face the enemy,” recalled Benincasa. “I didn’t want these kids to think they were forgotten. I looked at Joan and said, ‘You’re going to Iraq. Guide me.’ ”
Burning with artistic fire, Benincasa spent five days in her studio shrinking her painted image of the Maid of Orleans, on horseback and charging into battle, into a miniature scrolled medallion, complete with the words, “Be at my side.”
The medals are made of a durable alloy, with a brass finish and room for an inscription on the back. Benincasa fashioned them with a reinforced hoop to attach to dog tags, a chain or keychain.
She found a Michigan foundry to strike several hundred medals, and word of her creation spread. Chaplains, military families and Yellow Ribbon support groups contacted her to purchase their own image of Joan, to accompany soldiers heading to a deployment. They also found a following among spouses who stayed close to a loved one by wearing an identical medal.
“Within a month, I had $2,500 from people who said, ‘Make as many as possible,’ ” she said. “At that time, I didn’t know anyone in the military and had no idea the sacrifice these families make when they serve. Wow, what a commitment they make for us.”
Since 2006. Benincasa has sent out almost 6,000 medals, selling them at cost (patbenincasa-art.com).
She’s heard from countless soldiers who’ve carried her handiwork. A serviceman deployed in Kuwait sent her an e-mail after handing out a hundred medallions to fellow soldiers riding daily convoys in Iraq.
“Your gift will go a long way in lifting the morale of those wearing the medal,” he wrote.
An Army sergeant serving in Iraq e-mailed his thanks, saying: “I believe the faith represented through the medals gives soldiers an extra feeling of security.”
One servicewoman, who carried the medal while in the war zone, wrote to tell Benincasa that she was passing her medal to her soldier son to keep during his own deployment in Iraq.
“You can’t imagine my anguish,” she wrote. “What you have created signifies the duty and sacrifice we soldiers endure during this war.”
People living with chronic illnesses or recovering from trauma also have found comfort in Benincasa’s Joan. Sue Cochrane, a former Hennepin County Family Court official, has worn her medal on a chain every day for six years, as she faces a recurrence of cancer after a decade in remission.
“It’s helped me gather and keep my courage so many times,” said Cochrane, whose son was Benincasa’s student. “Joan is always within reach.”
Today, Benincasa’s commissions and classes fill her days. She’s been a teacher or artist-in-residence at more than six local high schools and colleges, and currently teaches at the Performing Institute of Minnesota Arts High School in Eden Prairie, and at Concordia University in St Paul.
But her creation of the Joan of Arc medal fills her spirit. “This is not my project; it never was,” she said.
“This medal goes out and finds the people who need it.”