Poto Leifi designed belts, blue jeans, shoes, and vintage jazz posters, but what he really wanted to do, in post-9/11 America, was join the Army. The only problem: Leifi, in his mid-thirties, was too old.
So he did the next best thing and crafted graphic tributes to members of the U.S. Armed Forces who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The resulting collection, Freedom’s On Me, exhibited Friday through June 1 at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, features the faces of deceased soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and National Guardsmen as the focal point for retro-styled posters imbued with Norman Rockwell-era optimism.
In 2005, Leifi said, "I updated all these World War II posters with this traditional, Americana art direction, and then I started looking at body counts online to see how many body bags were coming home. I put the face of one soldier on a poster, and the minute I did that, the artwork came to life. It was haunting. I thought, This is it."
Modeling his art on photographs found on Legacy.com's compilation of U.S. war dead, Leifi made samples and sent them to families of the fallen soldiers. Word spread, Leifi says. "They started taking their posters to Gold Star meetings and rallies, and another mother would see it, and she’d be like, 'I want one of those for my kid.'"
When families contact Leifi about creating a piece, he asks for a few photographs and seven words that best summarize their son or daughter’s personality. Leifi says, "Gruff? Nice? Smiley person? Sense of humor? That’s all I need; seven words to describe their essence, and I’ll take it from there."
Leifi adds, "I tell the families, these are not portraits; these are like World War II vintage recruiting posters starring your loved one. When it’s presented in this way, a connection happens."
Unexpectedly, Leifi finally got his chance to enlist when the U.S. military lifted age requirements. In 2006, at age 39, Leifi joined the U.S. Army Reserves. Sent to Iraq and later to Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar province, he’s continued to work on posters in between deployments. "It’s actually good that I joined the military because I learned about the colors, how the uniform is supposed to be, what the dress blues look like," Leifi says. "It’s kind of nerdy, and I used to think it was like Boy Scouts on crack, but now I’ve gotten to the point where I understand why it’s so important to get those details right."
Leifi provides each participating family with free Freedom’s On Me posters and sells additional copies of the 16-by-20-inch pieces online at $25 each. Revenue goes toward expansion of the initiative. More than 7,500 members of the military have died this century in Iraq and Afghanistan. Leifi wants to make those losses personal.
"When you go to a Memorial Day service, they might unveil a stone or plaque or memorial brick, but stone and granite feels too cold," says Leifi. "My job is to create the piece so it brings out the personality of who the person was. I bring it to the point where strangers are intrigued and want to be part of it. I tell the families, nobody’s forgetting anyone."