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THREE FORKS (AP) — Liz Silliman understands death.

As a former funeral director, the 57-year-old artist said she knows it will take a while for the families of soldiers killed in the war in Iraq to shake off the numbness of grief.

Once they get past the initial shock, they may start going through the mail and newspapers.

Eventually, they'll hear about an offer made by the Three Forks artist to create a painting of their lost loved one for free.

"When the war started I was, like many people, bereft," Silliman said. "I was wondering what I could do."

She came up with the "Mourning Glory Portrait Project," an offering of a lasting piece of art to help families cope with their loss.

"For all these war dead, and there have not been that many, but to those families, there is only one," Silliman said. "It is important to memorialize these individuals."

Instead of just painting the soldiers in uniform, Silliman said she hopes to collect snapshots of them throughout their lives and interacting with their families as a basis for each piece.

She'll also conduct phone interviews with family members to learn about each soldier's likes and dislikes and incorporate them into the painting.

Silliman used a similar technique when painting the mural that now hangs behind the dining bar at John Bozeman's Bistro. She gathered photos and spent time at the restaurant watching people to research what became a 14-foot-long painting of a wedding reception.

People are crying, laughing, eating and drinking.

"It's very mystic, in terms of the people in the picture," said Tyler Hill, owner of the Bistro. "We have people who just come in and stare at it. They have so many questions and then they read the story. It's been a real focal light for many people."

Hill ran a community contest asking people to write the painting's story. Every story described different ideas about what is happening in the scene.

"That is what I would kind of like to do for the deceased," Silliman said. "It becomes much more than just a portrait of a person. It's interactive."

This war in Iraq has had more of an impact on Silliman than other U.S. conflicts in her life. Age, she said, has given her greater insight into life and death.

"I was funeral directing in San Francisco during Vietnam. I was 20 and I did not give it a thought. I even buried some of those war dead, although not too many," she said. "This time, I'm stunned by the whole thing. There are still individuals willing to lay down their lives."

For Silliman, just talking with the families about those people who were willing to die to protect freedom is a thrilling idea, although none have accepted her offer yet.

"Freedom is priceless. Life is priceless," she said. "Look what they've done for me."

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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