NEA Arts Magazine

Seeing is Believing

War through the Eyes of a Combat Artist

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a painting of Operation Steel Curtain by Michael D. Fay

A painting by Michael D. Fay of rooftop patrol, Operation Steel Curtain, in Ubaydi, Iraq. Courtesy of the Art Collection, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, Virginia

American artists have chronicled war for centuries -- John Singleton Copley'sThe Death of Major Peirson (1784), Winslow Homer's Sounding Reveille (1865), and El Pozo (1898) by William Glackens, to name just a few. The advent of an official U.S. military art program, however, arrived in World War I when eight artists were commissioned to record the activities in Europe of the American Expeditionary Forces. Following the war, most of the work produced became part of the Smithsonian Institution.

The military's efforts to document war through the arts were re-activated during World War II, giving rise to programs such as the Army's War Art Unit and the Navy's Combat Art Program. Since the Second World War, each branch of the military, including the Coast Guard, has established its own art program. Together, these programs have covered conflicts from the Korean War to Vietnam. More recently, artists have been sent to Desert Shield/Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, and various other missions and humanitarian operations.

One such artist is Michael D. Fay, a painter, illustrator, and retired chief warrant officer for the Marine Corps. The Marines credit World War I artist Colonel John W. Thomason, Jr. with starting their artistic tradition, but the official Marine Corps Combat Art Program began in WWII under the guidance of Brigadier General Robert Denig. When embedding artists alongside correspondents, photographers, and filmmakers, Denig's philosophy was this: "At peace or at war, man cannot live by bread alone. A special case for art in time of war may be made, for it is then that man's spiritual, as well as physical, being is most severely in need of sustaining strength."

Fay's philosophy of why it's important to have artists side by side with troops on the battlefield is simpler: "They just don't want to be invisible."

As a combat artist in Iraq and Afghanistan, Fay embedded himself with Marines and captured them both in the throes of combat, as well as in quiet, everyday moments. One of only a handful of combat artists across the services, Fay came to his profession in a "serendipitous" way. Enlisting in the Marines from 1975–78, he then went on to receive a degree in art education from Pennsylvania State University. After struggling to find a teaching job, he reenlisted in the Marines from 1983–1993, and it was then that Fay started sketching "slice-of-life" moments.

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Fay's painting of Lance Corporal Fuller, who is mourning the loss of his comrades from Operation Steel Curtain, Ubaydi, Iraq. Courtesy of the Art Collection, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, Virginia

 

For the next few years, Fay held several jobs, but none in the arts. After a chance encounter with Colonel Donna Neary, a Marine reservist and former combat artist who owned an art gallery in Fay's hometown of Fredericksburg, Maryland, Fay's sketches won him a place back with the Marines in 2000, but this time working with the Marine Historical Center (now part of the National Museum of the Marine Corps). Following the events of September 11, 2001, Fay was deployed four times, creating art in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bahrain, and Oman.

"The Marine philosophy has always been, ‘Go to war, do art,'" emphasized Fay. "This is not for propaganda purposes or to make posters…. [Y]ou are expected to go out with the troops and to make art from their experiences."

To gain this level of access, combat artists must earn a high level of respect from both the officers and troops. "I'm often asked if I'm an artist first or a soldier, and it's not a static thing; it's very dynamic," explained Fay. "If you go out with a unit and you are not value-added in combat, word will spread and you won't go out again…. They need to know that if things get out of control, you will drop the sketch book, pick up a gun, and start shooting."

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Lance Corporal Guzman Tosses in a Grenade, Ubaydi, Iraq by Michael D. Fay. Courtesy of the Art Collection, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, Virginia

 

Unlike combat photography, which records a singular moment in time, combat art can capture and interpret the entire experience. For Fay, living this experience, especially while out on active duty, was the first and most important part of the art-making process. He often took digital pictures and brought an audio recorder to help him document the events.

"What I'm doing creatively then is I'm having the experience as deeply as I can," he recalled. "I have the gear on and I'm hot and sweaty, dying for a drink, and I'm having the experience along with the soldiers."

If there was a quiet moment, Fay would do field sketches, often with dirt, sweat, and other conditional realities mixed in. These works provided both artistic and historical on-the-spot testimonial, coveted by historians. At night, Fay worked in an ad hoc studio on base. Often with only a blue headlamp to guide him, he sketched emblematic images from the day.

Back at home, Fay created bodies of work based on his notes, photographs, and sketches. With quiet, time, and perspective on his side, he could lay out entire collections and use materials that were not compatible to the harsh field conditions, such as watercolors and oil paints. All works based on his four deployments, both from the field and back at home, are now part of the collection of the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

No matter the assignment or branch of military, almost all combat artists have had firsthand wartime experience. This was no exception for Fay, who named November 16, 2005, as his darkest day on duty. In his New York Times blog series "Drawing Fire: Into Ubaydi," Fay narrated his experiences in Operation Steel Curtain, a battle against Iraqi insurgents along the Euphrates River, during which many young soldiers were killed and wounded.

Even in these dangerous and emotionally raw situations, Fay believes the presence of an artist -- once there is rapport -- can actually be a major morale booster for the soldiers. "For guys facing their own mortality," he explained, "feeling that what they're doing is important and won't be forgotten is extremely motivating."Fay blogged, "For many of us it would be a long journey back to anything close to wholeness and equilibrium. Like our buddies who carried the dead to the waiting helos hours before, we too would feel the weight of their presence pulling on us for years to come." It would take Fay years to finish a collection based on this experience.

Since his retirement from the Marines in 2009, Fay has continued his mission to visually chronicle the effects of war on troops. As founder of the Joe Bonham Project -- a group named after the limbless, faceless character in Dalton Trumbo's antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun -- he and about a dozen professional artists are now documenting the recovery experience of wounded service members through art.

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Portrait of Specialist Derek McConnell by Victor Juhasz as part of the Joe Bonham Project, founded by Michael D. Fay. Image courtesy of Michael D. Fay

 

Since the program's inception, the artists have sketched soldiers with everything from bullet holes and shrapnel burns to colostomy bags and missing limbs, primarily at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. So far, hundreds of works of art have been created, with gallery shows already presented at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and at Storefront gallery in Brooklyn, New York. This November there will be a show at the Pepco Edison Place Art Gallery in Washington, DC.

So how do these wounded warriors feel about having artists capture their ravaged bodies? Contrary to general assumption, Fay insisted the soldiers are not self-conscious about being sketched. He told the story of Specialist Derek McConnell, who lost both of his legs in combat. McConnell asked artist Victor Juhasz, "Do you want to see everything?" and proceeded to take off his shirt to reveal severe stretch marks, a bag, and wounds that had gone septic. "These guys understand why we are there, and they are really willing to open up to us," noted Fay.

In addition to sketching the service members, the artists also ask to hear their stories. Oftentimes family members are in the room, hearing for the first time how their loved ones were injured. "In a way, this is how we give them visibility, too," Fay pointed out. "We're not afraid of asking the tough questions everyone is afraid to ask…they want their sacrifice to count."

Fay wishes more people talked to troops about their experiences, instead of trusting video games or Hollywood to shape their perspectives on war: "I think culture is formed by storytelling, and these stories just need to be told."

-- Christy Crytzer Pierce is a writer and publicist in Fort Worth, Texas.