(CNN) -- Not long after Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven was killed in an insurgent ambush in Afghanistan on Mother's Day in 2005, his family was contacted by a stranger.
Beth and Michael Belle hold the portrait of Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven, who was killed in Afghanistan.
Could an artist halfway across the country paint his portrait as a gift for his loved ones?
"I immediately wrote back and said I'm so interested," recalled Beth Belle, Kirven's mother.
She sent a few photographs of her son and several weeks later, when the painting arrived at her Fairfax, Virginia, home, Belle said she and her husband were in awe.
"We both started to cry, it was so beautiful," she said.
"Sometimes, even though it's been as long as it's been, I come around the corner and it takes my breath away because it's such a likeness of Nicholas."
Hundreds of families across the nation have received portraits of their fallen loved ones thanks to Project Compassion, a nonprofit organization dedicated to painting every American military service member who has died on active duty since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
More than 1,000 portraits -- offered at no charge -- have been completed since founding artist Kaziah Hancock began the project in 2003. The idea came after she heard a radio program about a soldier from her home state of Utah who had just been killed in Iraq.
"Instead of the war just being over there, it was right here in my living room," Hancock said.
She decided to find the soldier's family and offer to paint him as a gift "just from one American to another. Just to say 'I love you guys, you're beautiful and here's something to honor your precious son,' " Hancock said.
As the death toll grew, so did her commitment to paint all of the fallen. Project Compassion has since grown to include five artists: four in Utah and one in California. Collectively, they complete about 50 paintings a month, said Marie Woolf, CEO and executive director of Project Compassion.
Capturing the soul
The work can be emotionally draining for the artists. Hancock -- who has painted more than 460 portraits -- said that when she began, she cried "almost 24/7" until she resolved to not think of her subjects as dead.
"I thought 'You've either got to paint or you've got to bawl and which is it going to be?' because bawling isn't terribly productive," she recalled. "Besides, he's not dead, he's just in some other time zone somewhere in the universe." Watch the artist tearfully describe her "buddies" »
Hancock, 60, paints the eyes first, adjusting the level of her canvas so she is looking straight at them.
But she's not just after the likeness of her subject, which she said any artist can do.
Her biggest mission is to capture the soul, which she tries to figure out in part by trusting her own impressions, Hancock said. See some of her paintings and listen to her describe her work »
One soldier struck her as a ladies' man, for example, so she painted him with a dashing smile on a canvas she described as "very moody and beautiful and romantic." The photo of another soldier immediately made her feel he had joined the military only to please his father, she said.
The materials provided by the families hold the biggest clues.
Besides sending pictures of their loved ones, the next of kin are also asked to write about their personalities.
Belle said she told Hancock that Nicholas, 21, was an athlete and a gifted pianist who would play the instrument for hours. He also never hung up the phone without saying "I love you."
"He was a guy's guy, but... he was also very comfortable with emotion," Belle said she told the artist. "He was funny, he laughed a lot, he loved life, he woke up every morning and he came downstairs with a smile."
Uniforms and a Pink Floyd T-shirt
Many families also share letters, newspaper articles about their loved ones and sometimes videos from their memorial service, Woolf said. She said the mother of one young woman killed in Iraq forwarded her daughter's ID tag.
"To say that I came undone is putting it mildly," Woolf said. "That kind of thing they don't share very often, because it's so precious."
Most of the paintings feature the fallen in their military uniforms, but a number show them in casual clothes and poses. Some families prefer it that way, Hancock said. She recalled one mother writing, "I had him for 18 years and the Army had him for one, why would I want to see him in uniform all the time?"
Sometimes, even with the families' help, figuring out her subject is a puzzle Hancock does her best to solve. One man's parents wrote that he liked "Beethoven, vampires and cats."
But the artist was most struck by photos showing him listening to music. She painted him in a Pink Floyd T-shirt, wearing headphones and "a look in his eyes like 'man, that's the greatest tune,' " Hancock said.
In Virginia, the portrait of Nicholas Kirven hangs near the piano where he used to play.
"It's very special to all of us," his mother said. "It's just the way he's standing, the way he's holding his rifle, it's the way he looks in his uniform, it's all of that. She captured Nicholas."
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