This article first appeared March 21, 2006 on the New York Times TimesSelect website. This material is copyrighted by The New York Times and Michael Fay.
Today I’m going to talk about the two things closest to my heart — the Marine Corps’ Combat Art Collection and my daughter.
On Friday I checked in off of post-deployment leave. For two weeks I had made the rounds of family and friends. My daughter is a freshman at a large university in Boston, and my leave happily coincided with her spring break. Being with her was the highlight of my time off. I don’t know who was more concerned this past fall and early winter, her or I. She was fearful about my being in a war zone, and I was in an absolute panic about her debut into the world of complete independence while I was half a planet away.
We’re somewhat adept at being apart. Since second grade, when her mom and I divorced, she’s had a primary residence other than mine. For most of her childhood she lived nearby, so we spent every other weekend and each Wednesday evening together. We worked on many science fair projects and book reports and enjoyed holidays and summer vacations at the Jersey shore. When she entered tenth grade, she and her mother moved to Maine. There was still Thanksgiving and the shore, but the geographical separation was hard, at least for me. Since 9/11 she’s endured four of my deployments. She wanted to spend her break with me and I was thrilled.
She didn’t want to hear gory war stories, and I didn’t quiz her about the usual messy freshmen year indiscretions — or if indeed there had been any indiscretions. We did a lot of shopping, and I was happily surprised by the eclectic mix of music on her iPod.Before she went off to college, when we took road trips I had to endure listening ad infinitum to two CD’s — “American Idiot” by Green Day and Good Charlotte’s first album. Now, her iPod is loaded with over 2,000 tunes, none by those two groups. We listened to everything from Sara Brightman singing Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes and artsy Kate Bush-esque stuff to now-classic songs from 1960’s (The Byrds) and ‘70’s (The Romantics). She loves “Turn,Turn,Turn” and was amazed to learn that the lyrics by Pete Seeger come from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. Driving down from Boston we sang in unison, “That’s what I like about you…” I’m looking forward to turning her on to the real Kate Bush and eclectic stuff like the German group Kraftwerk.
Now, some history behind the Marine Corps Art Collection. There are approximately 7500 pieces of art in the collection. The works go all the way back to the founding of our republic and include everything from the first painting showing a United States Marine to rare recruiting posters. A good portion of the collection comes from the combat art program — from combat artists, both civilian and military — fielded by the Marine Corps.
The program dates back to a WWI Marine officer, John W. Thomason, an infantry officer who sketched for his own edification and turned his drawings and combat experience into a powerful illustrated book titled “Fix Bayonets!” Between the two world wars Lt. John Capolino produced historical paintings, primarily of current and past Marine Corps battles and operations.
During WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the combat art program produced thousands of images, both sketches and finished work, for the collection. Well-known living artists that have sprung from this tradition include Harry Jackson, Howard Terpning and Henry Casselli.
Following the Vietnam War the combat art program became a function of the Historical Division and was staffed by reserve Marines. There are currently two official combat artists, myself and Maj. Alex Durr, who’s presently en-route to Iraq. We also have a new artist, Kris Battles, who is processing back into the Marines and will come the third member of our team. A fourth Marine, Sergeant Jack Carrillo, is an active duty guy, who we've requested to come work for the Historical Division from time to time. His last assignment for us sent him out with a tank battalion during Operation Iraqi Freedom I in 2003.
This coming November the National Museum of the Marine Corps will be opening at Quantico, Va., and the artwork will be available for public viewing. A show of my artwork is scheduled to be exhibited at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa. in July 2007.
Why does the Marine Corps have an active fine art program? This question is often posed to me with a raised eyebrow, and is difficult to answer. The martial reputation and public perception of the Marine Corps is a powerful one, and in most of our minds heavily weighted in a direction away from anything remotely associated with art and culture. Admittedly, we Marines are often the culprits in perpetuating the popular image of the gruff anti-intellectual warrior. But in truth, the Marine Corps at its center is concerned with excellence and the values that inform and animate a free and open democracy.
In a free society art can exist for its own sake. In a military organization, which in many ways is a distinctly closed and undemocratic culture, the challenge to keep democratic values and attitudes alive is critical. Nations have succumbed to internal coups because their military culture lost sight of what they swore to defend in the first place.
One of the many ways the Marine Corps nurtures a healthy devotion to the core values of our American republic is through its combat art program. As I mentioned in my first post, Marine artists are sent into harm’s with one basic order: Do art. This official directive has no subject matter, medium, style or quantity attached. The Marines simply makes it possible for the combat artist to create from one of the most elemental visual sources — people and places in times of war. We marines who’ve been honored with the chance to be combat artists are completely free to follow our own artistic sensibilities