Richard Perry/The New York Times
Louise Benoit, left, and her sister Rebecca, who were badly burned in a house fire that killed five relatives, with portraits by an artist in Hoboken, N.J.

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Richard Perry/The New York Times
Doug Auld, the artist.
 

Facing Their Scars, and Finding Beauty (cont.)


Mr. Auld went on to become a reasonably successful portrait painter. The burned girl haunted him. "I wanted to freeze-frame her," he said, "so that I could look, and process, and come out of it and say, 'Good morning.' "

In 2003, he suggested a portrait project to officials at Saint Barnabas. They were skeptical but eventually agreed. Now, said Chris Ruhren, director of burn services at the medical center, "when I look at these paintings, I think, 'Oh, my God, how beautiful.' We know the scarring process. We see how far they've come." The hospital is now studying how the portraits affect their subjects' self-images and psychological recovery.

The burn center's medical director, E. Hani Mansour, a reconstructive surgeon whose painstaking work is showcased in the paintings, pronounced them "splendid" if somewhat exaggerated.

"When you look at these people physically, they don't have this variegation of colors and scars," Dr. Mansour said. "But he did show the disfigurement, the anguish with these scars. I don't know if he will be able to sell them; they are so striking it's unbelievable."

Mr. Auld said he "pushed" the colors and patterns he saw in his subjects' flesh, both to strengthen the images and to make sure viewers realized they were looking at paintings, not photographs.

As for selling the portraits, collectively called "State of Grace," Mr. Auld hopes someone will buy and display the whole series. He certainly wants them seen by as many people as possible. "I'd like to think I can see all 10 kids on Oprah," he said. "Why not?"

Mr. Auld, sensitive to charges of exploitation, likens himself to a war correspondent who is "doing something vital for society, because society needs to see what's happening out there." At the same time, Mr. Auld said, "he's making a living. And he's making a name for himself."

The series can be seen online at dougauld.com. One of the paintings, "Shayla," is among 50 chosen in a nationwide competition to hang in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington at a show that opens next month.

"State of Grace" is not without precedent. In 2002, the National Portrait Gallery in London mounted a show, "Saving Faces," depicting patients who had undergone radical facial surgeries. Mr. Auld said he was inspired by the 19th-century painter Théodore Géricault's portraits of asylum inmates. (Mr. Llanos, the survivor of the Seton Hall fire, was himself the subject of a series in The Star-Ledger that won a Pulitzer Prize for photography.)

There is even a current photography show near Albany with striking parallels to Mr. Auld's work. Last year, an amateur photographer named Steve Lobel attended a conference of burn survivors in Baltimore. He asked if anyone would sit for portraits.

Soon dozens of people had lined up in the hotel lobby. The result is "Recognition Beyond Burned," showing at the Exposed Gallery of Art Photography in Delmar, N.Y., through Wednesday.

Dan Gropper, who lost both arms and legs and whose face bears the traces of more than a dozen surgeries, wears a huge grin in his photo. "I get a lot of 'Oh, poor Dan,' " said Mr. Gropper, who travels widely and has skydived. "I have a very good life."

Dyna Carlisle was so excited when she heard about the show that she drove down from the Adirondacks to insist on having her photo taken, too. "I want people to see us and know we're not freaks," she said.

Ms. Benoit's sister Rebecca Benoit, 20, joked recently with another of Mr. Auld's subjects, Jelani Jeffrey, about being at the forefront of a fashion trend.

"We were like, 'What if this thing blows up and everybody wants to get burned?" she said.

Mr. Jeffrey, 23, visited Mr. Auld's studio with the Benoits and Mr. Llanos to talk about the portraits. He said that while he would not wish his injuries on anyone — they include hands charred to nubs and an amputated leg — the burns were in some ways a blessing. They forced him to be honest.

"It doesn't allow you to lie to yourself the way other people are capable of doing," he said. "There's no way to hide it, no way to spin it around or put it off on someone else. Everybody has issues and flaws, and mine happen to be prevalent right from the door."