This article orginally appeared on the New York Times TimesSelect website on March 15 and is copyrighted by The New York Times and Michael Fay.
The Combat Artist
I’m going to make an assumption that you would probably like to ask me three questions: What does war have to do with art? What is a combat artist? And why would the United States Marine Corps, of all organizations, send fine artists into harm’s way? I’ll try to answer these as best I can over the next couple weeks. At the same time I hope to provide a glimpse of who I am, both as artist and Marine.
Although what I do falls within an established tradition and has an objective journalistic bent, it also has poetic leanings. I’ve been out in the trenches of the war on terrorism, which means not only witnessing them as an artist with a sketchbook in hand and an eye at the aperture of a camera, but also as a Marine putting a rifle to shoulder, making a good sight picture, squeezing off rounds and trying to kill the enemy.
Then Gunnery Sergeant Michael Fay firing his rifle in New Ubaydi, November 15, 2005
There’s a joke that’s a starting point I use to give people a sense of who I am and what I do. This particular joke is offensive and racist, so as a good politically correct Unitarian (yes, that’s the religion on my dog tags) I only give the set-up and not the punch line. There’s a zebra that goes to heaven and standing before the pearly gates asks Saint Peter, “I’ve got to know, was I a white zebra with black stripes, or a black zebra with white stripes?” I share with many of you a sense of living in gray areas, with legs astride both sides of everything. This is rarely a comfortable place to be, but I take solace in Carl Jung’s reassurance that living in the “tension of opposites” is the healthiest place to be for our unfolding psyches. I was recently asked by a journalist, “Are you an artist who happens to be in the Marines, or a Marine who just happens to be an artist?” That’s a question I try to answer each day, but one I fear will remain perpetually open. What I can state with black and white certainty is that I am passionate about what I do and, despite all life’s detours, my muse has never deserted me.
I’m self-conscious enough to want to describe what I do as a combat artist for the Marine Corps in such a way as to appear fashionably humble. That would be patently false and more than a few close friends would take me to task about that kind of posturing. I have some wonderful qualities, but self-deprecating humility is not one of them. (James Stewart, were he alive, would be horribly miscast playing me — a cross between James Cagney and Jim Carrey would probably get the job done.) Simply, I know that what I do is unique and that I’m very good at it. My work has been favorably compared to the images of Winslow Homer and the reporting of Ernie Pyle. I also know that I’m the beneficiary of being the right person at the right place at the right time, and this tempers my flights of egotistical fancy. Without the war on terrorism my fifteen minutes of fame just wouldn’t be. Before 9/11 I was high up in the running for the Fraternal Order of the Jacks of All Trades and Masters of None poster child contest.
I have been blessed by being allowed to do art of a subject — Marines in combat — of such inherent depth and vibrancy that even if I were talentless dolt I’d enjoy an astronomically high statistical likelihood of creating something of artistic merit. As an artist I am a realist, or to be more precise, a devotee of a school of fine art called Naturalism — a term coined by Emile Zola. I call it “Dragnet” art — just the facts, ma’am. I’m also a Romantic of sorts. My stock in trade is images and events drenched in the pathos of war, and I am as much participant as observer.
What is a combat artist? The answer is deceptively simple — an artist who goes to combat. This is not unlike a landscape artist going out into the hills of Vermont or a figure painter posing a model in the soft north light of a Soho loft. But the working conditions are markedly different. In addition to art supplies, I carry a 9-millimeter pistol with a combat load of 60 rounds. Due to the nature of combat in Iraq I also tote an M-16 A4 rifle to the field, with 180 rounds. I generally do not carry grenades. How close do I get to actual combat? Very close. I have one minor shrapnel wound and was injured when a Humvee I was riding in nosedived into a large I.E.D. crater in the dark. I have fired my rifle at the enemy in pitched battle. All these elements — the crushing weight of gear in the heat, the pain of injuries, the adrenaline rush of firefights, the boredom of downtime — march alongside a constant vigilance for cultivating ideas and images. I am both with and of the Marines — with them as observer and of them as fellow combatant.
To do my artwork in the field I carry a small bag — it’s actually a medical corpsman’s combat trauma kit — with small sketchbooks, a selection of pens and pencils, a compact watercolor set, film and lots of extra AA batteries. I also have two digital and one regular 35mm camera. When it’s hot and heavy I take pictures. When things are quiet I sketch and do small watercolors. I give everything a coat of fixative.
Working conditions are not only dangerous, but filthy as well, so I favor spiral sketchbooks with heavy fronts and backs. They get shoved in and out of a backpack on a regular basis. I take a digital photo of each piece in case there’s some unfortunate event where my gear gets lost or destroyed.
What has war got to do with art? Images of war and warriors have been part of art history since time immemorial. For me, particular pieces reverberate with the presence of the first combat artists. When I look at the statue from Greek antiquity, “The Dying Gaul,” I know viscerally that the sculptor witnessed this. The dying warrior’s posture, wound, thick locks of hair and Celtic jewelry shout this fact. I think of the warriors I’ve sketched — the wounded trying to rise, the exhausted collapsing in corners and against walls, St. Christopher medals displayed against the fabric of flak jackets, awkward battlefield haircuts echoing the Gaul’s mop of hair, probably shorn by a buddy’s knife blade.
Egon Schiele, the troubled fin de siecle artist, while in the Austrian army during World War I, drew poignant and sensitive portraits of sickly Russian P.O.W.’s. (He himself died from the same Spanish influenza pandemic that was ravaging the world towards the end of that war.) Goya’s series of etchings, “The Disasters of War,” recorded the horrors inflicted on Spain by the French in the Napoleonic wars. Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” captures what would today be a gathering of National Guardsmen. Manet raced to Cherbourg in hopes of witnessing the Civil War duel between the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama, with the resulting painting redefining marine art. The Franco-Prussian War still echoes down the halls of Western art by virtue of the indelible effect it had on Monet, Renoir, Courbet and Pissarro, to just name a few.