Monthly Archives: July 2014

 

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.

From left, retired Marine Major Nicolas Hurndon holds himself upside-down on gymnastics rings, while painter Paul X. Rutz and sculptor Christopher Wagner work on his portrait. This series, titled Between Here and There, will open at Good Gallery in Portland this November.

 

Thomas Ricks, the Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, called Second Fallujah “an extraordinary, difficult and violent battle… the most intense combat U.S. forces had seen certainly since the Vietnam War” (Full transcript here). To get a sense of what he’s talking about, see this refresher on Fallujah, and this one.

“Marine Corps” and “Fallujah.” If you put those terms together in the right company, you’ll conjure serious discussions on the level of “Khe Sanh” and “Iwo Jima,” iconic battles that have motivated earlier generations to make movies and songs in efforts to convey their complicated feelings around them.

Fallujah doesn’t have its movie or hit song yet, but thanks to a beautiful musical accident, a retired Marine and two portraitists got to substitute one of each—albeit in a mode more related to Catch-22 or M*A*S*H than the sober war tales I’ve linked to in the paragraph above.

Christopher Wagner and I have spent most days together sculpting and painting on portraits of combat veterans since January, and in that time we’ve shared a lot of music. Each session gets its musical flavors, from Tom Waits to Bright Eyes to Dvorak to country gospel hits of the 80’s, depending on who are depicting that day and what we’re sick of listening to. Sometimes, thanks to a couple of my friends with nefarious music tastes, we go deep into the cultural barrel. (Perhaps you’ve heard of Teddy and Darrel.)

The song “Convoy,” released in 1975, helped spawn the CB radio craze of the mid-70’s and gave birth to the movie of the same title. (Listen here for a sample.) The film, directed by Sam Peckinpah, opened in 1978 and earned a surprising amount of money. We knew none of this when the song played on my iPod in the middle of a painting session with Nicolas Hurndon, a newly retired Marine who recently left a stint at the Pentagon to start his own Crossfit gym here in Portland.

Imagine Nick rolling upside-down on gymnastics rings hanging from my studio’s ceiling, then unrolling to rest, chalk his hands, and continue the following story as the music plays. He punctuates each scene with, “Convoyyyy…” then pulls himself up on the rings again.

As a junior officer with the Military Police, Nick arrived in Kuwait after the initial invasion of spring 2003, about the time President Bush flew aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and gave his “Mission Accomplished” speech. Crews were busy loading massive amounts of supplies onto ships for return to the States or for delivery to Afghanistan now that the Iraq invasion had finished. Within days, however, the brass realized the Iraqi insurgency had become more than an inconvenience, and the mission shifted. Those crews began re-offloading the ships, and Nick found himself in charge of a platoon guarding convoys shuttling weapons and supplies back north into Iraq’s cities. “Convoyyyyy…”

In spring 2004, four security contractors for a company called “Blackwater” were killed near the city of Fallujah. Government officials got hit hard in the press. They sent in more than 2000 Marines to pacify what had become a center for protest and violence against the Americans. Nick continued in his role, now shuttling supplies between Camp Fallujah, the staging ground for the Marines, and the city itself. “Convoyyy…”

Nick said sometimes the convoys of supply trucks, supported by Humvees and other military vehicles, encountered insurgents taking “just pot shots” at them. Other times they ran the gauntlet through coordinated attacks involving waves of rocket propelled grenades, roadside bombs, machine guns, burning vehicles, and other roadblocks. “Convoyyy…”

Navy planes and Marine ground forces pounded the city for the entire month of April without successfully pushing the insurgents out. The Americans withdrew at the beginning of May 2004, and returned to do it all again that November, finally pushing their way into the city in terrible house-to-house fighting. “Convoyyy…”

Somehow talking about this stuff—the wounded and dying friends, the hearing loss from firing a rifle so much, the political contortions that led to all those convoys—it’s easier with a funny refrain. With its mock-serious drum cadence and mock-realistic radio chatter, “Convoy” helped set a tone in the studio that felt just right for everyone. We laughed. We asked follow-up questions. We learned instead of staring heavy hearted into the enormity of it. Writing about it now, it feels like I’m describing the difference between a faucet and a fire hose. We could feel the temperature of Nick’s memories, sample the water, without feeling blasted in the face by what I imagine is a high-pressure wall of emotion still inside him.

Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.