LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – A Marine in full-on camouflage sits on a tropical beach, taking a smoke break under the shade of a leafy plant. At his side sits a German shepherd, alert, at attention.
"The canine is something they used to send messages out," noted the artist who painted this wartime scene, Charles Gilbert Kapsner.
"That's the sheriff's dog," he added. "I had to borrow him."
Kapsner has put a lot of Minnesota models — human or otherwise — into the five epic murals he's spent the past decade painting for the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery, where 7,300 former service members are buried just north of Little Falls.
"The murals bring us together as veterans, and people serving in different capacities all over the world," said Barbara Stumpf, whose late husband posed for one of Kapsner's paintings. "It is a place to go and think and sit, and just bring memories."
The classically trained artist approaches each 8-by-10-foot oil painting like a history thesis, methodically laboring over details, obsessing over the layers of paint until they are perfect. Hundreds of military history books — not to mention a massive taxidermied polar bear — fill the cabinlike studio behind his now-deceased mother's house, where he works seven days a week.
"This is my life," he said. "There's no difference between work and life for me. I get up in the morning and hang out here all day."
Kapsner moved back to his hometown in 2009, after a quarter-century in North Carolina and lengthy sojourns in Europe. He's made 27 trips to Italy, where he studied painting, and nine visits to France.
"I look at this past 10 years as giving back to my country what I brought back from Italy," he said. "I kind of think of this as my Sistine Chapel."
A WWII veteran's idea
Born and raised in this Mississippi River city best known as the hometown of Charles Lindbergh, Kapsner had returned in 2008 for an exhibition of his work at the Great River Arts Center.
That's how he met Gordon "Gordie" Gerling, a World War II veteran and former Minnesota state representative who had heard about the show and decided to swing by with his wife, Bette. They had seen Kapsner's paintings at Lindbergh Elementary School in Little Falls, where he has two frescos about the cultural history of central Minnesota.
In a casual conversation, Gordon Gerling told Kapsner about an idea he had for Little Falls — a replica of the sculpture in Arlington, Va., commemorating the flag raising at Iwo Jima amid one of WWII's most gruesome battles.
The two came up with a better idea: Kapsner would paint five murals — one for each of the five branches of the U.S. military (Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, Air Force) — and then hang them at the Veterans Cemetery's Committal Hall, where services are held.
After getting a go-ahead from the state Department of Veterans Affairs, Kapsner set to work, with $485,000 in funds raised by veterans through a grassroots campaign.
He has completed four of the murals, and is on track to finish the final one by mid-July. The dedication is set for Sept. 15 at Camp Ripley, the military training base just across the river from the cemetery.
The paintings mix symbolism with military icons, luscious scenery and an assortment of Minnesota veterans, including Gerling. (He's in the Army painting, examining a document by Thomas Paine alongside a Revolutionary War officer.)
He and Bette would visit Kapsner's studio about once a month to hang out, drink wine and observe the works in process.
Gerling viewed the paintings as an educational project, to help future generations appreciate the role played by veterans in preserving our freedom.
"In the painting, things are authentic — they aren't things he dreamed up," he said in a video made shortly before his death in 2016. "They are authentic to the people who were at war."
Bette Gerling, 91, met her husband in Minneapolis before World War II. "It was love at first sight," she said wistfully.
This project was especially personal for Gordie, whose brother Jay fought in WWII with the Army Air Corps.
"He suffered shell shock," Bette said. "Gordie always felt bad about that. What the veterans go through and what they do, there is not enough you can do to honor them."
Kapsner tries to pack as much Minnesota-specific history as possible into the paintings. A skull and boots in the Army mural pay homage to the Brainerd-based 194th Tank Battalion, whose soldiers were part of the infamous Bataan Death March in 1942.
But he adds other telling details as well. A pistol resting on the sand is a reminder of the suicide epidemic that claims the lives of 20 veterans or service members on an average day.
"The shell casing on the ground — that's suggesting burying the thought, not yourself," he said.
Kapsner is not a veteran himself — the Vietnam War was winding down by the time he came of age — but his father, Gilbert, who died in 2005, served in World War II, as did many of his uncles. A lot of his friends served in the military as well, so he feels a personal connection to the trauma they experienced.
In the Marine painting, a skull and mandible and femur represent soldiers missing in action. A lady in a purple hooded coat (modeled by Kapsner's wife, Catherine Stoch) snoops around the tents of Confederate soldiers in the Army mural. A polar bear stands on a rock overlooking the sea in the Coast Guard painting. (That's why a taxidermied bear lurks in a corner of the artist's studio.)
Only one character makes eye contact with the viewer — a little girl peering over the shoulder of a female sailor. She represents the people left behind.
The details are endless, but above all else are the real-life veterans who posed for Kapsner.
One of those guys was Ray Stumpf, a former Navy scuba diver who started posing in 2013 after he was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. The Navy painting shows him sitting on a coil of rope, staring into the distance.
When the mural was finally hung, Kapsner realized that Stumpf is now gazing toward his grave site. "A lot of eerie things like that have happened," he noted.
But for Stumpf's widow, Barbara, the painting is comforting.
"It means I can go and visit my husband anytime I want to," she said. "I told my Aunt Barb: Does Ray look more real than anyone else up there? I literally believe that Charles captures his spirit."
Something to talk about
The fifth and final mural includes retired Maj. Gen. David Hamlar Jr. of the Minnesota Air National Guard.
A doctor, he served in the military for 31 years, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He came to Kapsner's studio, posing for a total of seven hours during two sessions.
"I will stand at attention all day, but in terms of certain poses and trying to relax — that was somewhat challenging," said Hamlar, who will be the featured speaker Monday at the cemetery's Memorial Day ceremony. "Charles made it easy."
The first black officer to achieve general's rank in the Minnesota Guard, he hopes "someone can draw some inspiration — that I was in that position, that it represents me, looks like me. I can relate."
Kapsner says the paintings include women and people of color in proportion to their representation in the service. "Women make up about 18 to 20 percent of the military," he said. "In the Army painting there are five women out of 23."
Symbolism is important to him. But what really matters are the life-changing experiences that happen when veterans view his paintings.
"After the dedication of the Marine Corps painting, I was speaking with a gentleman who brought up how [the artist] had soil from Iwo Jima ground into the paint," said cemetery administrator Erik Sogge. "He was pointing out pieces of the painting and talking about his personal experience. He stayed out here for maybe an hour and a half. "I believe that if it weren't for that painting, he wouldn't have been able to talk about this."