Person of the Week: Combat Artists

A special group of Marines have brought their artistic skills to Iraq and Afghanistan to join a tradition that dates back to the Revolutionary War in a post few have ever heard of -- the combat artists.

They are on active duty and are fully armed and deployed in the roughest combat zones of their day.

"And we are given one order when we go forward, and that is, 'Go to war, do art,'" said Chief Warrant Officer Michael Fay.

"What we want is the unvarnished truth," said Ret. Capt. Charles Grow. "We want to know the good, the bad and the ugly."

And that means paintings and sketches may depict small moments of frustration, such as a soldier playing chess in a sandstorm in Iraq, or acts of everyday valor -- as with soldiers on patrol picking their way down a mine-riddled road in Afghanistan.

For these Marines, art is not a hobby, it is their commission and they have a soldiers' legacy in mind.

"We try our best to leave something tangible to the Marine Corps," said Col. Charles Waterhouse.

Works Convey Horrific Reality

While they could use photography to capture the battlefield, the Marine Corps maintains the combat artists and places value in the eyes of an artists.

"The artists go into a place, and they meet these people and they form a brotherhood," Grow explained. "And the sitter, the person that you're painting, gets a sense that you're honoring their service by doing a portrait of them."

He is both a former combat artist and curator of the National Museum of the Marine Corps and Heritage Center in Triangle, Va..

Other combat artists have included accomplished painters such as Winslow Homer, who sketched prisoners in the Civil War, and John Singer Sargent, who captured the horror of a mustard gassing in World War I.

At times, this form of art reveals horrific reality. Fay said the artists are not told what to paint.

"It's really left to our artistic … intuition what we do," he said. "We are not censored."

In one of his paintings, "All Eyes Down," he captured Marines as they walked with their weapons ready and eyes on the ground.

"As an artist, I am looking at body language," he said. "But also as a Marine, I was very conscious that at any minute I could step on something."

Another painting from Sgt. Kristopher Battles depicts a wounded comrade in an operating room in Fallujah, Iraq. He sketched as real wounds were stitched.

"It was in real time, experiencing it; I didn't take any photographs," Battles said. "Just as it unfolded, I sketched it."

For more information: Col. Charles Waterhouse: http://www.usmcartist.com/museum.html
Marine Museum at Quantico: http://www.usmcmuseum.org/
Combat art exhibit at Marine Museum: http://www.usmcmuseum.org/Exhibits_CombatArt.asp
Michael Fay's blog: www.mdfay1.blogspot.com
Fay's art can also be viewed at the Michener Museum: www.michenermuseum.org/exhibits/fire-and-ice.php