Sunday, July 25, 2010

With Sketch-pads and Guns, Semper Fi
United States Marines can do more than fight and win wars.

By Carol Kino
Quantico, Virginia
Published in The New York Times on July 18, 200

A bigger difference, though, may be the program’s requirement that members be both Marines and full-fledged artists, not one or the other. (In the Vietnam War, however, it used civilian artists too.) When deployed, they carry the same 75 to 100 pounds of combat gear — including food and water, body armor, a Kevlar helmet, an M-16, a 9-millimeter pistol and ammunition — as their fellows, as well as art supplies. Also, said Joan Thomas, the art curator at the Marine Corps museum, they must be vetted by her and by artists who preceded them in the program.

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“We’re looking for someone who is not just copying a photograph,” she said, “we’re looking for gesture drawings, we’re looking at if you’ve done any plein air work, if you’ve done work from life.”

These requirements impress even the program’s competitors. “The Marines are doing it the way it should be done,” said Gale Munro, the head curator of the Navy’s art collection. “They have really good artists, they’re chosen from within the ranks, they’re in it for the long term, so they can get a long perspective.”

And being in combat, Sergeant Battles and Mr. Fay agreed, can be a fantastic way to develop as an artist.

“You’re balancing a tactical eye as a Marine with your artist’s visual eye,” Sergeant Battles said. On the one hand, he said: “you’re thinking ‘Is that a sniper? Is that an I.E.D.?’ ”

But, Mr. Fay added, “you’re also sort of looking strategically” as an artist.

“Yeah,” Sergeant Battles said, “You’re still looking at, ‘Wow, look at the way that light is bouncing off the body armor.’ ”

Company commanders don’t need to worry about protecting the artists, as they need to do, for example, with embedded journalists, and this has won support for the program throughout the rank and file. “The biggest worry a unit leader has is: ‘Oh, my God, who is this guy? How am I going to take care of him?’ ”said Col. Richard D. Camp, retired, vice president of museum operations for the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. “But once they find out these guys are fully capable of taking care of themselves, all that is off the table.”

One skeptic turned supporter is Col. Robert Oltman, who met Mr. Fay in 2005 when the colonel was commanding Second Battalion, First Marine Regiment, part of an expeditionary unit that had been assigned to clear insurgents from Ubaydi in western Iraq. On the final day they were ambushed and lost six men, many of whom were “younger Marines, newly married, new fathers,” Colonel Oltman said. Some months later he visited the museum and was shocked to see Mr. Fay’s drawings of those same men on display.

Although he had first viewed the presence of a combat artist as an “administrative burden in trying to step off into combat,” he said, he began to realize its value.

“We have somebody who was there who can tell the story,” he said, “so when their children grow up, there’s an archived history of what their father or loved one did.”

The Marine Corps museum, which opened in 2006, has in its collection more than 8,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures dating to 1825, long before the corps’s first formal program was set up in 1942. A planned expansion, slated to begin in early 2012, is expected to increase the area allotted to art from the approximately 85-foot-long corridor it now occupies to at least 5,000 square feet of gallery space, in addition to an on-site studio where visitors will be able to see combat artists at work.

Some of the work in the collection is forgettable — for example, grand battle scenes commissioned after the fact — but there are many gems. From World War I there are quick battlefield sketches made in France by Capt. John W. Thomason Jr., who inspired the whole program. From World War II there’s a vigorously worked scene of men engaged in combat on Tarawa, painted by Harry Jackson, later an Abstract Expressionist and today a hugely successful Western painter.

Representing the Vietnam War are a tension-filled watercolor of Marines tiptoeing across a rice paddy by Maj. John T. Dyer (later the collection’s first curator) and a 1968 oil painting of a gruesome field surgery, whose composition suggests Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson,” by Capt. Peter Michael Gish.

From Iraq and Afghanistan there are piles of Mr. Fay’s sweat-stained combat notebooks and some great paintings, like his “All Eyes Down” (2002), which shows Marines in a barren landscape surveying the ground for landmines; and “The Interface — Civil Affairs at Samhat, Iraq” (2008) by Sergeant Battles.

He happened upon the friezelike scene in a town in Al Anbar province, with Marines lined up on one side and Iraqi women and children on the other, bisected by the interpreter. “You’re always looking,” said Sergeant Battles, “and this is one of those instances where it came together.”

Mr. Fay came to the program after two tours of active duty in the 1970s and ’80s. Three failed attempts at art school and several years as an artisanal furniture designer later, he was recruited in 2000 by his predecessor, Col. Donna Neary, retired.

A few years on, Sergeant Battles came to the program after sending an e-mail message to Mr. Fay’s blog, Fire and Ice. He had already served 10 years as a reservist and two as an evangelical missionary in Haiti, aiding local artisans. Now married, he was finally working as an artist full time.

Mr. Fay checked out his Web site,, and was impressed. Sergeant Battles re-enlisted and soon found himself deployed to Iraq. (He now has his own combat art blog, Sketchpad Warrior.)

So why should the Marines have artists in addition to photographers? The Marines interviewed for this story mostly said that what counted was the added emotional resonance that artists can bring.

“If you and I are in the same firefight, what you see and what I see are two different things, based on our own background and experience,” said Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas, retired, the president and chief executive of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. “When a photograph is taken of a battle or any type of scene in combat, you see the image. But what the artist does is he takes that image and interprets it.”

And, of course, capturing a moment in a painting also serves one of art’s most ancient purposes. “It’s the pact we make with the warrior: You will live forever and we will remember you,” Ms. Blair said. “And to me the best way to do that is through art. We can’t give him his life, but we can give him that immortality.”