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Combat artists: war through their eyes.

For as long as mankind has waged war, the courage and sacrifice of the warriors have been visually depicted by combat artists. From the first civilizations in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia, art depicted the harshness and price of war paid by combatants and innocents alike.

"The eyes of the artist are altogether different from someone else's," said Ed Reep, a U.S. Army combat artist who depicted World War II in Italy. "I think the eyes of the artist see things differently. That's why the artists are still going to war."

"A combat artist is an artist who goes to combat," said U.S. Marine Warrant Officer Michael D. Fay, who is currently serving in Iraq. "This is no more and no less than a landscape artist going outdoors to find the visual and experiential content for their work."

"I consider myself a realist," Fay said. "My own artistic impulse is a naturalist one; to render as close as possible the reality of what is before me in the context of my own experience. I see a central goal of art in the elimination of stereotype. My art atticulates what is true and real about the actual experience of war and warriors. My intent is to give people another insight into this unfolding drama called the War on Terrorism."

"The combat artists have for hundreds of years captured the service and sacrifice of the American veteran," said National Adjutant Arthur H. Wilson. "Using their creativity and talent, they have depicted in accurate detail the character of the disabled veteran and the horrors of war they endure."

Reep and Fay are very much alike, even though the wars depicted in their art are separated by decades. Reep wanted to be an artist since childhood. "It was something in my soul," he said. Invited by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to be a war artist correspondent, Reep was a soldier in Kiska, Alaska, preparing to clear mines from the coast when he received orders to return to New York to become a combat artist.

Fay was a U.S. Marine who served in the Gulf War, Somalia and Yugoslavia. Four years after being discharged from the Marines, he met Col. Donna Neary, then the combat artist for the Marines, who had opened a studio near his home.

"I had a small body of combat art that I produced while on active duty," Fay said. "Just small sketches that I had done while in a helicopter squadron during Desert Storm." Neary asked if Fay would be interested in returning to the Marine Corps Reserves as a combat artist. Fay jumped at the chance and on Jan. 18, 2000, was sworn in, beginning a journey that would take him to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The work of the combat artist isn't easy, as Reep discovered while in North Africa during World War II. "Two Senators were upset there were artists in the war," he said. "They took away our $75,000 appropriation." Among a group of seven combat artists stranded by lack of funds, he appealed to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to go back to work. "Ike said to me, 'There are five divisions going into Italy, and I want you to take charge of these artists and assign each to a division,'" said Reep. "I assigned these guys, and I picked the 1st Armored Division for myself."

For the next two years, Reep was in battle. "It was my job, and I was an artist," he said. "I led myself into thinking that this was the most important assignment in the world. I had been frightened many times. I was mortared when painting the bombing of Monte Casino. But this was my job. It took away a lot of the fear I would normally have. You're certainly another person when you're painting. Each soldier has to summon his own courage."

"A very critical component of what I, or any other combat artist does, is to have a genuine experience without artifice," said Fay. "Consequently I carry all my own gear, sleep on the floor, go weeks without bathing in the same set of filthy, sweat encrusted utilities and sit with fellow Marines-ears and eyes straining out into the pitch dead of night on post. I try to go out on at least two patrols per day and on every planned operation outside the wire."

At the battle for Anzio during World War II, Reep recalled near around the clock shelling. "I lived in a foxhole and I went to the beachhead surrounded by the Mussolini Canal each day and painted. I did a lot of painting," he said. "There I just missed getting killed because of a runaway cow. Marauders who went at night through a cleared area of the canal had come back with a rather enormous cow, and she wasn't exactly willing. All of a sudden I heard the cowbell and the cow was rushing back home. The cow ran into the canal and struck a mine. The shrapnel flew all around me. The shrubs around me were all cut up, but it wasn't my time. It's the craziest thing, to go through a war and being killed by a cow, but those things happen."

"Combat is a paradoxical dish whose recipe asks for generous dollops of the murderous garnished with a few dashes of the mundane," said Fay. "I was with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment from Nov. 8-19, 2005, for 'Operation Steel Curtain.' These were 12 uninterrupted days and nights of combat against a devious and determined foe well apprised of our intentions. The local population was informed 24 hours ahead of time that the Marines would be attacking the following morning. There was no element of surprise. Civilians had to be taken into consideration and given the opportunity to exit from neighborhoods generously salted with foreign fighters; neighborhoods that would shortly boil over into lethal killing zones. Yet, even in the midst of the carnage, Marines sandwiched everyday activities into the chaotic mix. Activities such as shaving, burning trash, sharpening knives, joking with buddies, reading paperbacks, playing chess with Iraqi soldiers and writing letters served as simple punctuation marks between greater violence."

When combat artists are embedded with military units they carry the standard rifle, sidearm, ammunition and battle gear. In addition they carry the tools of their trade, sketchbooks, art pencils, paints and sometimes a camera.

"During the war, I did mostly watercolor and casein paintings, which have become acrylic," said Reep. "Of course, I was always fully armed. I couldn't hit a thing with the .45. I was the worst marksman that ever lived."

"When on patrol, or in actual combat, I rely solely on my camera to visually record events," said Fay. At the end of a patrol day or on a quiet day in the field I will sketch. When I go to the field, I take a basic set of sketching gear and all the requisite combat gear."

The final part of Fay's work happens back at the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Va. "There I set up a formal artist's studio and produce finished drawings, watercolors and paintings," said Fay. "These are based on both sketches and photos. I generally don't work from imagination or memory."

Combat artists, embedded with combat troops, experience the thick of battle. "When I got blown up on Anzio, 18 men were killed and 38 wounded," said Reep. "They were watching the motion picture Going My Way. I decided not to go. I was in my foxhole when I got blown up. I could hear the men groaning nearby. I got out of my foxhole when another 155 mm shell hit again. I climbed back into the foxhole and pulled the lid back down to survive the shelling.

"I did a self-portrait of myself with my carbine rifle across my legs and on my back sits a skeleton," said Reep. "It's called 'Soldier and Friend,' because I lived with the fear of death all the time. It was remarkable how I didn't think of death. I just knew it was there, because I was a target."

"I was wounded by shrapnel on Nov. 15, 2005, in Ubaydi (Iraq) during Operation Steel Curtain," said Fay. "I was on site Nov. 16 when 2nd Lt. Donald R. McGlothlin of Virginia and four other Marines were killed and 11 wounded. Lt. McGlothlin was the best of the best and was loved by his Marines. To date, I have not created a picture of the wounded or the dead. Based on my experiences of Nov. 16, I plan to. You walk around the battlefield and see things that happen to the human body that you don't ever want to talk about, but do."

"I've often spoken to disabled veterans and other veterans groups," said Reep. "I was an artist, so for 40 years I didn't talk about the war. I think the thing that got to me the most was when I discovered a dead soldier who died with a kind of a smile on his face. He was crumpled and blown up. I took his weapon and stuck it in the ground so graves registration could pick him up. I took pictures of him. His beard had continued to grow after he died. I painted many dead men, but this was personal because I was with him for quite a while after I came across his body."

Most combat artists have a favorite work. For Fay, it was the image of Lance Corporal Nicholas G. Ciccone. "It's of a young Marine just back from a long patrol in Afghanistan," said Fay. "It absolutely captures for me the essence of every young Marine serving out in the 'goo.' They all have that young-old look, 20 going on 45."

"What is combat like? Good question," said Fay. "One moment it's quiet, and the next it's not. It seems to last forever, and it's over in a moment. It's loud, very loud. You put your rifle into your shoulder and start squeezing off hopefully well-aimed rounds, and you're glad after it's over that your training kicked in, that you didn't embarrass yourself and that everyone around you did the same and more. You learn about yourself, and you are bonded to those on your left and right forever. When the chaplain comes around to talk about the guys who died, you actually listen. Men will cry in front of other men."

Today, Reep has possession of only one of his paintings, "Soldier and Friend," which he saves for his grandson. Some have been sold, but most are at the Center for Military History in Washington, D.C., awaiting the construction of a new Army art museum. His legacy is the artwork he created. "The artist has eyes that are glued to his heart," said Reep. "That's why artists are what they are. We stop to see things that most people don't have time for."

"I hope that first and foremost my work stands on its own merits as art," said Fay. "Beyond that, I hope that viewers will have a transcendent moment--an instant in which the reality of someone else breaks through into their reality. I want my art to fly in the face of preconceived ideas."

In February 2005, Fay had a show of his art at the prestigious Farnsworth Museum and Wyeth Center in Maine. "I had protestors from the Maine Union of Visual Artists," said Fay. "After they saw my actual art, they realized it wasn't the propaganda they had expected. My artwork has great psychological depth. I just try to use what's inside of me to create a work of art."

"The art created by our nation's combat artists is an important historical record of our wars," said National Adjutant Wilson. "They have endured the same hardships and terror of war, and dutifully recorded it for all to see. Their works underscore the courage of those who have sacrificed in the cause of freedom. They also share the wounds and disabilities of their fellow soldiers and Marines, and recount stories of heroic service."
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Author:Wilborn, Thom
Publication:DAV Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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