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“Women on Guard” – Charles Kapsner’s homage to military women

By Marianne Rice

In his latest project, a 4x5 foot painting titled Women on Guard, Charles Kapsner tells a powerful narrative of the multi-layered identities of five women in the Minnesota National Guard. It was recently installed in the permanent collection at the Minnesota Military and Veterans Museum, after circulating multiple venues including the rotunda at the Minnesota State Capitol.

Kapsner is a classically trained artist with a deep appreciation for the Renaissance and Baroque painters of the fifteenth century. His sound technical skill and ambitious, thought-provoking, narrative paintings bring a classical element to contemporary subject matter.


Kapsner established the foundation of his art career as a young man in Florence, Italy– he spent multiple years under the tutelage of Signorina Nerina Simi, one of the foremost drawing instructors of the 20th century. Learning both fluent Italian and the grueling art of fresco painting, Charles is no stranger to large-scale, multi-figure paintings.  


His hometown elementary school in Little Falls, Minnesota holds two of his large fresco paintings, reflecting the cultural history of central Minnesota. The Committal Hall, at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery, houses a historic monument completed by Kapsner in 2019. The colossal project required extensive research and took nearly a decade for Charles to complete; it includes a series of five, 8x10 foot paintings honoring each of the five U.S. military branches.


His most recent work, Women on Guard, is flush with symbolism. It captures the visual imagination by weaving together the diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds of each of the five women with elements of their professional and personal identities. The patchwork of imagery conveys the significant impact the inclusion of women has had on the National Guard over the past fifty years.


A chess board stretching to the horizon suggests possibility and strategy in life’s decisions. In the landscape behind the figures, a radiant sunrise symbolizes the advancement of women, illuminating the fields opening up to them. A myriad of carefully placed images depict elements important to each of the women’s lives. The white feather in the lower right corner is a tribute to Kapsner’s wife, Catherine, who wrote the grant that provided financial support for the project.    


Each of the five women depicted in the painting was chosen because of her valuable contributions to the National Guard. In preparation for the painting, portrait drawings were completed from life over multiple two to three hour sessions. Over the year-long journey to complete this project, Charles spent significant time in his studio with each of the women. 


These long conversations gave Charles insight into their lives. One credits the National Guard with saving her life from a difficult path. Another is grateful the military has added meaning and discipline to her days. The twin sisters depicted exchanging letters in the painting, shared stories of growing up as Native American women in East Central, Minnesota; how they sought to overcome prejudice by excelling in sports and academia. 

These extraordinary individuals lead successful lives that have impacted their communities and served our country. “It tells a compelling story,” says Charles, “it was an amazing experience to paint these five incredibly diverse women.” At the completion of the project, Kapsner gifted each of them the portrait drawings completed during their life sessions.


Kapsner considers himself fortunate to have been surrounded by strong, influential women who have impacted his life and career. Acknowledging the unique challenges faced by women, he regards himself an ally, saying, “I’m in their corner. Our lives are advanced by the inclusion of women in all spaces.”  


Reflecting on the large narrative paintings of past centuries, Charles notes that paintings have always been utilized historically as educational tools. He hopes this painting, too, has something to teach us.


What’s next on the horizon for Charles? Perhaps a fresco style vaulted ceiling project of his own and another flight back to Italy (28 overall). This trip will commemorate 50 years since he first set foot in Florence, where not knowing a soul, he got off a train, took a left and stumbled upon the premier fine art scene of Florence, changing the trajectory of his life forever. 

Charles Kapsner, “Women on Guard,” 48x60"



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