Nov. 11, 2021, marks not only Veterans Day, but also the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Va.
Every year, the Veterans Day National Committee of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs holds a nationwide poster contest and decides what image will be displayed across the U.S. in honor of the people who have served in the United States military.
This year, the theme was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and an award-winning illustration by Matt Tavares ’97 was chosen for the official poster.
Tavares lives in Ogunquit, Maine, grew up in Winchester, Mass., and majored in studio art at Bates. His senior thesis project, a children’s picture book about baseball, later became Tavares’ first book, Zachary’s Ball. Published in 2000 by Candlewick Press, it won the Massachusetts Book Award in 2000 and launched Tavares’ career as an author and illustrator.
“I feel like doing my senior thesis at Bates was kind of this dress rehearsal for doing what I do now,” Tavares said. “I got to go through this whole process and make a whole book. I’m still doing it almost 25 years later.”
Tavares’ winning illustration depicts a single soldier marching in front of the tomb, paying homage to both the anonymity and the dignity of the monument. Tavares created the image and others for Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which was written by Colby alumnus Jeff Gottesfeld.
Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was published in 2021 by Tavares’ longtime publisher, Candlewick Press. He and Candlewick have for several years supported the organization United Through Reading to help connect military families who are separated — by deployment or military assignment — through the shared experience of reading together.
In addition to this honor, Tavares’ artwork was selected for the Society of Illustrators’ The Original Art 2021 exhibit, which showcases original art from the year’s best children’s books as determined by a jury of top illustrators, art directors, and editors.
Knowing his illustration will be seen in Veterans Day celebrations across the nation is a “huge honor” for Tavares. The illustration is intended for children, but the simplicity of the image echoes the solemnity of the idea of an “unknown soldier” being commemorated.
“You’re talking about soldiers who were killed in wars, and I guess it’s a little complicated to explain how there are unknown soldiers,” Tavares said. “[Gottesfeld] tells the story from the point of view of the first unknown soldier, so it’s very powerful and poignant, and told in a personal way.”
Tavares wanted to show a more private moment with the tomb guard than usually seen, depicting the soldier at sunrise, alone, walking the ceremonial 21 steps.
“Every time they do a changing of the guards, the place is packed, and they have an audience. But they’re also there at 2 in the morning, and at 5:30 in the morning, a lot of times they’re there by themselves,” Tavares said.
This year also marks the first time in nearly 100 years that the public is allowed to walk on the plaza of the tomb and lay flowers in front of the tomb, in a two-day special event, meaning that people will be able to approach the tomb, something previously only allowed to the sentinels of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard.”
“When I was working on the book, I got to spend some time with the tomb guards, and I remember I tried to take their names down so I could acknowledge their names in the book,” Tavares said.
“They were all very hesitant to even tell me their names, and I was struck by that. They’re so dedicated to what they’re doing, focusing on the tomb.
“So I kind of like the idea that there’s this poster that I made, that a lot of people are going to be seeing — but my name’s not on it, and a lot of people won’t know that I made it. I hope that goes with the theme of what the tomb guards do.”