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A face on a quilt.

The Karina S. Lau Quilt is one in a series of quilts depicting female American soldiers killed in the Iraq war. Army Pfc. Lau, 20, was killed Nov. 2, 2003, in an attack on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter near Fallujah, Iraq.

Faces in the quilts

U professor remembers American women soldiers killed in the current Iraq war

By Pauline Oo

In spring 2004, Daniel Jasper began a series of design projects called "The Casualties of War." He wanted to visually show the total number of United States military fatalities in the current Iraq war, while also differentiating among the individual soldiers killed. In one project, he transforms digital portraits of dead servicewomen into large-scale patchwork quilts.

"What is remarkable about this particular war are the numbers and the pace at which women soldiers are dying--though they're not technically combat soldiers," says Jasper, an associate professor of graphic design. "The women are support soldiers: mechanics, truck drivers, members of supply teams, etc. Given the nature of this war--an insurgency with no traditional 'front line'--the women and their support battalions are getting caught up in the fighting and are often the victims of roadside bombs."

In 2004, there were 35 women on the casualty list. "Today, the number is up in the 60s," says Jasper.

Jasper is working with University of Minnesota alum and costume technician Susan Walter, as well as textile designer Chris Batagglia, to make the full-sized bed quilts. There are five, so far, with grant money left to make one more. The goal, if Jasper lands another grant, is to make a quilt in each woman's name.

"Whether the viewer is pro- or anti-war, I hope that [this exhibit] reminds him or her of the human element of war and what that means," says Walter.

"I agreed to the project because I was intrigued by the concepts behind the work," says Walter. "When we hear of the number of soldiers being killed in Iraq, it is almost an abstract event unless there are names, photos, or stories attached to those numbers. When I look at one of these quilts, the portrait stays with me."

For Walter and Jasper's work, the digital photos are broken down into pixels, their smallest elements. One pixel equals one quilt patch. "If you have an image on your computer screen and you zoom in on it, it's nothing but a bunch of squares--the pixels. But when you zoom out, it sort of congeals into a continuous-toned image," says Jasper.

The Casualties of War quilts are mesmerizing, both up close and at a distance. When you're looking at one from two or three feet away, you find yourself immersed in the patterns, colors, and textures of the fabric. When you step away from it, you suddenly become aware of the big picture--literally.

"The quilt is the ideal vehicle to get at the dichotomy that exists between what are seen as traditional roles of women in culture and this new role that they're performing as combat soldiers," says Jasper.

The quilts are traveling in exhibits nationwide, but plans are underway to show them at the University.

"I like to think that by working on this project I'm participating in the current political discourse," says Walter. "Whether the viewer is pro- or anti-war, I hope that it reminds him or her of the human element of war and what that means."