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Owatonna man sketches pencil portraits of soldiers

Al Smith has been an artist his entire life, but has only started doing pencil sketches two years ago.

OWATONNA, Minn. — Al Smith takes at least a couple of hours to do someone a favor. In this particular case on Wednesday, Smith was meticulously sketching a portrait of a friend's furry, white dog.

He said he usually takes around 10 hours to complete a portrait. Shorter, if he works through the entire day. He has been an artist his entire life, but the pencil portraits are relatively new.

"When I was a kid, I spent my whole life drawing with a pencil because I absolutely loved it," he said. "I resurrected that love and then I started drawing with a passion and a fervor that wouldn't stop."

The portrait that started it all, was one of his friend. His friend, a Vietnam veteran had asked him to sketch him in a position of prayer. Smith, who is also religious, said he would, and brought the sketch to life.

"Each of my drawings, before I start, I would pray and I'd ask Lord to combine my hands and my eyes and my mind together so that I can transfer the image I see onto my blank paper," he said.

Since that portrait, Smith has made it a mission to capture the soul of a soldier, bringing it from the past, onto his paper.

"As I am drawing them, I think about them and I think about their life growing up," Smith said. "What it was like for them, what it was like being a SEAL, how difficult was it. Where were you? How were you stationed? Various battles and so forth that you've been in. I began to have an almost intimate relationship with them."

Start out sketching a stranger, and by the end you'll have a friend.

"There's definitely a spiritual connection," Smith said. "All while I was drawing all these military things—I would especially with the Vietnam Experience—I'd draw these soldiers and wondering about them. How are you now? Did you make it out OK? Are you wounded? What is your life like? Do you have any addictions? You've got your life together. How are you doing? I pray for them."

A portrait in this way isn't just graphite on paper. It may be also gratitude for the gift of service.

"I can't tell you how fulfilling it is," Smith said. "And at the same time it's exhausting you know? Oh my goodness. What these boys must have went through."

You can find Al's pencil sketches on his Facebook page.

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