From left, painter Paul X. Rutz works on a portrait of Vietnam veteran Ron Baker, along with sculptor Christopher Wagner. The series, titled Between Here and There, will go on display in November, 2014, at Good Gallery in Portland, Ore.
By Christopher B. Wagner
I would like to recount our first meeting with our second Vietnam veteran, Ron. Before we first meet with any model we talk with them on the phone, getting an idea of their interests and planning what angle of who they are to try to portray. Paul did the interview with Ron on the phone. From that we knew Ron had an interest in Buddhism and squash so the portrait would probably take that sort of angle. Your mind begins conceiving a picture with whatever information, however limited, it has on hand. So I was picturing a bald man in orange ropes playing squash.
When Ron arrived at the studio he was wearing simple sweats and flip-flops that someone might lounge about in. He turned out to be a soft-spoken friendly guy who brought with him two different squash rackets and an assortment of workout clothes, which he laid out on the studio table as potential props. Paul and I looked these items over, assessing which racket had the best color scheme, but I didn’t have any impression that anything on display was knock-out subject matter. I don’t know if Ron sensed this or not, but he soon gave us another option for a focus. While we were playing with rackets Ron causally mentioned that he is a sort of work of art as well and proceeded to unabashedly slip out of his sweats. Paul and I were pretty much speechless as this Vietnam veteran stripped down in front of us to reveal a large assortment of tattoos, dominated by two dragons: each starting on his chest, then one wrapping around his right arm and the other flowing over his back, down to his left leg. These dragons where joined by numerous Hindu, Buddhist, and astronomy themed images, along with an enlarged image of Ron’s infantry badge on his lower back.
Up to this point in our portrait project we had worked with contemporary veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts and one Vietnam veteran. All of the contemporary vets had posed nude, and our Vietnam vet had been clothed. We had worried that would be a trend and that clothing would be an unintentional separator between our younger and older veterans but instead Ron blew that worry out of the water. He casually stood naked in the middle of the studio with Paul and I standing around literally speechless. Ron said something along the lines of, “So there’s that” and started putting his clothes back on. Paul and I both immediately broke our silence with, “Oh no you don’t!” We had found the main point of interest for the portrait and a Vietnam era model that apparently had no concerns about posing naked.