Art Works Blog

War Torn: The Art of Ben Steele

Text by Paulette Beete
Paintings and drawing by Ben Steele, courtesy of Montana Museum of Art and Culture

War Torn: The Art of Ben Steele is on view at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture through November 19. Photo courtesy of the museum

“I kind of felt an obligation to the guys who went through [the Bataan Death March], to illustrate what went on over there. I wanted to tell the story.” --- Ben Steele, from Billings Gazette

More than seven decades ago, native Montanan Ben Steele was a young soldier. Captured by the Japanese during World War II, Steele spent 41 months as a prisoner of war, enduring horrific treatment including the infamous Bataan Death March. During and after his imprisonment, he created visual artworks---first on the dirt floor of his cell and scavenged pieces of paper---documenting prisoner life and the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. War Torn: The Art of Ben Steele, a collection of 68 drawings and paintings, is now on view through November 19 at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. Museum Director Barbara Koostra has nothing but praise for Steele, who went on to teach and mentor generations of young artists at Montana State University: "Ben is a tremendously amazing person who has lived through more torment than anyone I have ever met yet come out an absolutely incredible human being on the other side. His sense of humor is unbelievable, and his love for Montana and the power of art brought him home alive. He is a man of forgiveness and his story is one of unfathomable survival."

Here are several images from War Torn. You can read more about Ben Steele and his artwork here.

"The Bataan Death March," oil on panel, ca. 1980. From Museum of Montana Art and Culture permanent collection, gift of Ben and Shirley Steele Enlarge

Here is audio of Ben Steele discussing the real life event behind his work:

[audio:http://artworks.arts.gov/wp-content/uploads/BenSteele.mp3]

[transcript]

"March to Tayabas," ca. 1945-47, pencil on paper. From Museum of Montana Art and Culture permanent collection, gift of Ben and Shirley Steele Enlarge

“The Water Line at Camp O’Donnell, One Pump for More than 9,000 Americans,” oil on canvas,  1956. From Museum of Montana Art and Culture permanent collection, gift of Ben and Shirley Steele Enlarge

 

 

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