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My daughter turned two last month, and I have never taken a photograph of her. For the month of April, I’m going to explore why. What kind of parent would do that?

#whyidontphotographmykid #newbornfeet #tinyfeet #pdx #bornyoung

I want to take the standard of “beautiful” away from my daughter’s photographic image and give it to the growing toddler’s in-the-moment, complicated, contradictory self. That may be impossible, but I’d like to at least slow down the glut of photos of her every cute moment.

#whyidontphotographmykid #susansontag #photography #pdx #art #warpedstandardsforbeauty

Let me be clear: I am not putting down photography per se. (I’ll be using lots of photos in this series, including this photo of drawings.) I am saying our diet of images is so loaded with one food group—photography—that we’re forgetting the benefits of a balanced visual diet.

#whyidontphotographmykid #newbornsketches #newborn #baby #pdx #drawing

How to prepare my daughter to handle the impulse to equal or embody billions of seductive images? Perhaps showing her I care more about her than her image will help her navigate the smartphone culture into which she has been born—and the evermore photo-centered world she’s going to mature into.

#whyidontphotographmykid #pdx #raisingstrongwomen #johnberger #waysofseeing #beauty

When I tell people I’ve never taken a photo of my daughter, many seem to assume it’s evidence that I don’t care enough about her. On the contrary I think about her so much, and I’ve read enough about her mind/body development, that I’m convinced not taking photos of her is better for us both. Getting myself to mark big moments in other ways takes lots of attention and flexibility.

#whyidontphotographmykid #pdx #drawing #newborn #sketches #exhaustedmother #learninghowtonursethenewborn

Paglia is an art critic. She’s preaching here the value in slowing down and looking at images that challenge us. As parents we talk about what kind of example we demonstrate for our kids. I want to give the example of patient attention to my daughter. I want to teach her to attend to a room in ways that don’t involve posing for a camera.

#whyidontphotographmykid #pdx #camillepaglia #art #fineart #savethechildrenalittlebit

It began as a small vow: As a painter and new father, I would not take a photo of my daughter for her first year. Knowing others would take PLENTY of photos of her, I would take this precious opportunity to add my own image-making abilities to the mix of pictures. I’d let other people shoot the photos while I drew and looked for other ways to document my daughter’s early years. It became a habit.

#whyidontphotographmykid #baby #crawlingbaby #drawing #pdx #sketchthefamily

Cartier-Bresson knew how to balance his visual diet. He took some of the most famous photographs of the past century, and yet his book is not a wholesale celebration of the photo. It’s a look at what photography can—and cannot—accomplish. Drawing reminded him not just that all experience can’t be captured in a photo but that drawing makes us alert to our world in ways we miss when we point, shoot and move on.

#whyidontphotographmykid #thedecisivemoment #photography #drawing #pdx #meditation

As Henri Cartier-Bresson says in yesterday’s quote, there’s a difference between the photographer’s quick recognition of the moment and spending time in the moment, unfolding with it. Drawing and painting help us slow down and meditate on what’s now instead of flipping through to the next, and the next.

#whyidontphotographmykid #training #triathlete #pregnancy #triathlon #pdx #painting #oilpainting #bikingbeforethebabybirth

Painting is slow. It takes patience. My wife’s face her shows her effort in posing here. I believe inviting that kind of strain is good for a picture. The work itself between painter and model to slowly build one picture for weeks: we invest, concentrate together, navigate each other’s moods, and thereby make the picture more special.

#whyidontphotographmykid #triathlete #pregnancy #pregnantathlete #oilpainting #mothertobe #pdx #painting #strongwomen

This photo represents the only oil painting I’ve finished of my daughter so far. We have tried others, and abandoned them, which is what I do with many paintings. That trial and error, I think, is good for both daughter and papa.

#whyidontphotographmykid #painting #oilpainting #pdx #baby #infant #nursing #tirednewmother #sleepwhenyoucan

What was I thinking when I vowed not to photograph my daughter? When this started I was worried about inadvertently teaching her to mug for the camera, annoyed at the thought of the machine getting between me and her, and uncomfortable with the idea that my duty as a parent was to find a perfect photo moment instead of living in the moment.

#whyidontphotographmykid #sonogram #pdx #fetus #androgynoussoundpicture

You can imagine my wife’s unhappiness with my announcement that I didn’t want to photograph our newborn. She came up with imagined scenarios to show that there would be times when I would NEED to take Elcy’s photograph. How could I be so selfish? She wasn’t the only one who thought I was being ridiculous.

#whyidontphotographmykid #pdx #toddler #fingerpaint #handprints #babymarks #fingerprints

When our daughter was born, I was doing regular physical therapy to recover from shoulder surgery. A couple days after her birth I had a PT session, and the very nice therapists asked to see photos of her. I didn’t have any, and one PT asked, “What kind of father are you?” I stared back at her for a moment trying to find the most honest way to put it: “What kind of a father am I? One more interested in paying attention to my child than in showing other people I did.” I don’t know if that answer satisfied her, or if it satisfies anyone but me.

#whyidontphotographmykid #surgery #pdx #labrumrepair #stitches #physicaltherapy #igotinked

Surrounding the scars from my surgery, this tattoo preserves the actual touch of my wife and daughter. Whit started the process, holding her hand on my shoulder while the tattoo artist worked his way around her hand. Then we did my daughter. They’re meant to echo Paleolithic cave paintings, some of the oldest images of human touch we have, and I love that they took a long time, that they’re etched painfully into me.

#whyidontphotographmykid #tattoo #cavepaintings #paleo #portrait #pdx #alternativeportrait

I think Mitchell is saying we’re not rational when it comes to images. We believe pictures of people are echoes of real people, and they seem to have the power of the things they depict. We feel like the photo of mom brings mom into the room and acts a little like the real mom, comforting or judging us, depending. The movie moment of covering or turning the photo to avoid its gaze—that works because we feel as if photos can gaze. We give pictures power.

#whyidontphotographmykid #wjtmitchell #pdx #art #images #philosophy #whatdopictureswant

According to the Population Reference Bureau (, in 1850 the number of people who had ever lived was 92.6 billion. Since then only 13.8 billion have been born. Just think of all the people who lived (some of whom we still admire today) who loved and thrived without taking photos of anyone, including their children.

Niépce was only one of many gentlemen-scientists who were looking for a way to chemically fix the image of light through a lens in the early 1800’s. He developed his “heliographs” of the 1820s  independently of Louis Daguerre’s “daguerreotypes” and William Henry Fox Talbot’s “photogenic drawings” of the 1830s.

#whyidontphotographmykid #photography #photos #pdx #niepce #oldestphotograph #history #billionsandbillionsofpeoplewithoutcameras

Sontag wrote this in the mid-1970s, and it’s even more true today, and way beyond vacation. The cameras perpetually in our pockets burn with an invitation to document and upload not only every pleasurable moment, but also to alleviate boredom and shame those we want to push below us. I want to give other shapes to experience than stop-point-click-upload—or better yet, I want to let experience shape me.

#whyidontphotographmykid #susansontag #sontag #pdx #photography #work #vacation

Here’s a way to reshape experience, something many parents do. How far can we take this? How much can we decorate the door jambs and rearrange the other props of our lives to help us remember our children’s growth in a more immediate, intuitive way than photos can do?

#whyidontphotographmykid #pdx #growingchildren #parenting #toddlers #lovemarksonthewalls

Here’s another way to shape experience: We can trace experience and revel in the moment. These lines represent me and my daughter goofing around in a typical afternoon. She asked me to trace her hand, then her foot (she had shoes on). I love looking back here on how her hand moved because at age two she didn’t understand she had to hold her hand still the whole time I drew around it. Then she asked me to put my hand on the paper and she drew all over the thing without any apparent attempt to trace my hand. I look at this and remember like many do their photos.

#whyidontphotographmykid #pdx #hands #drawing #parenting #toddlers #drawwithyourkids

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This is kind of how I remember the portrait, a hovering glimpse in the dark above my uncle’s bed in the farmhouse where I spent summers growing up. It scared the shit out of me as a child, and I love it.

I own the painting now. My wife, bless her, puts up with it hanging in our house’s most prominent spot. (But she thinks the dress is white and gold, so all her decor opinions are suspect.) Visitors young and old call the portrait ugly and ask, “What’s it doing up there?”

That’s a good question, and it’s been asked enough that I’ve decided each day this month I’m going to post a slice of the answer.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #portrait #painting #blueandblackdress #dressgate

My uncle Ralph owned the painting before I did.

I don’t know why, but on a short visit home from grad school May 22, 2007, I took a lot of photos of him and the farm where the Rutz family lived since the 1890s.

This photo is the closest thing I can find to the painting in situ where I would encounter it as a child. It was hanging directly behind me as I shot this photo of my father pulling aside the curtain in his brother Ralph’s room to get a better look at the piano. For some reason we were documenting that kind of thing that day—where and when things on the farm were built, what shape they were in, who might want them some day.

I try to avoid nostalgia, and I see a fine line between that and an honest look at how our past echoes in us. I aim to stay on this side of that line.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #painting #portrait #pdx #oldminnesotafarmhouseinseriousneedofdusting

I took this photo of a photo on a pile of old pillows that day in May 2007. The framed aerial shot shows the family farm, taken from the air about the time Ralph’s portrait was spooking me from a dark corner any time I snuck into his room. It was still a working farm. They had ducks and chickens and a few cattle. My brother and I helped feed them and get the eggs each summer. This scene doesn’t exist anymore. All but two of these old buildings were torn down because they were falling in anyway.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #painting #art #bulldozeitbecauseitisfallinginanyway

This series of posts is about how pictures affect us… not that they do or why they do, but the ways we carry images and associate them with the rest of our world, the ways their meanings change while we grow.

Soon after this moment petting the cat in 2007, uncle Ralph would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His heart is still beating today (March 4, 2015) but it’s been years since he recognized any of us.

I just didn’t think to ask him about the painting until it was too late. Now there’s this puzzle. In 2010, after he moved from the farm to a retirement home, I met with him and asked when he got the portrait. He looked at me with a wan smile for a few beats and said, “About… ten years ago.” Twenty years before ten years ago I was already being frightened by it.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #painting #portrait #art #alzheimers #oldmancatlove

This photo shows uncle Ralph around 1969, about the time he would have received the portrait, a gift from a friend. Here’s Ralph—a little younger than I am now—as he often appears before Alzheimer’s softened his exterior: tough, clean cut, unsmiling, focused on something more important than this stupid picture. Ralph loved boxing and ham radio. He never married, never talked about having kids, and only once did I hear a story about a girlfriend.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #art #pdx #painting #1969

On the back of the portrait, scribbled in pencil, it says: “Art Schaible 1968 The Indian Gall Fought against Custer and gave the best account of the battle.”

#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #art #painting #1968

Photo from “Peterian ’67,” St. Peter High School, St. Peter, MN, 1967.

I never met the man who painted the portrait over our mantel. And until last week I had never seen a photo of him either.

Art Schaible (pronounced “shy-bull”) taught high school art in St. Peter, Minnesota, for decades. My ma, who grew up in St. Peter, says she probably took art from Art in 8th grade but doesn’t remember it. There are photos in yearbooks, she said, and scanned three for me. Here’s the first, with some excellent yearbook strangeness to come tomorrow.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #painting #art #portrait #highschoolyearbookdiscoveries

Apparently Art Schaible painted pictures of Nazis in front of children.

This is the second of three photos my ma scanned from her St. Peter high school yearbook, vintage 1967, showing Art in his teaching prime.

This photo fascinates me because it depicts the chasm between today’s school climate and the one my parents grew up in. I’m trying to imagine the circumstances that would get a photo like this published in a 2015 yearbook. The school leadership would have to totally disregard political correctness and potential parental complaint. But that’s just the beginning for me. It’s not just the Nazi, professionally framed yet staged on an easel as if Art is still working on this painting. It’s the suits they’re wearing in an art classroom and the gesture with the brush’s wood tip. What are they doing? Who was this guy who the next year painted the portrait of a Native American that I own? Was this painter/teacher a Fascist, or a war-loving provocateur, or something else?

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #portrait #painting #nazisinstrangeplaces

“What do I remember about Art? He was eccentric. He had the balls to wear leotards to teach school on occasion. He was a painter of dubious quality…” – Roland Rutz

A man’s leotard balls in midcentury rural Minnesota! I’ve been asking around about Art Schaible, and my dad, Roland, gave that wacky account of the man. He recalled other details: Art was married, had kids, then divorced. He loved antiques, worked as head wrestling coach at St. Peter High School, and died young—of what he doesn’t know.

In this, another photo from the “Peterian ’67,” Art poses with his assistant coach. The guy on the right would be replaced by uncle Ralph in fall 1968. Ralph taught tool and die making and helped Art coach wrestling. Ralph’s brother, my dad, has no idea why Art painted the portrait or why he gave it to Ralph.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #painting #portrait #pdx #wearyourleotardtowork

I contacted uncle Ralph’s lifelong friend Larry for more on Art Schaible and the portrait. He supported my dad’s line about the leotards: “Art would wear what he wanted to school, especially if they were in art instructionals,” Larry said. “He was a muscular, big guy, and no one would give him grief.”

Larry started working as an administrator at St. Peter high school in fall 1968, the same time Ralph started teaching there. He remembers the portrait as a going-away gift: “Ralph got it from Art when he left St. Peter.” Larry said Ralph cherished the portrait less for the subject matter and more because it came from his friend. Ralph and Art did college together at Mankato State and had same wrestling coach there. According to Larry, Art excelled at college wrestling and Ralph didn’t exactly. Ralph looked up to him, I think.

After his divorce Art married one of his former high school students and died of diabetes in his late 50s. “He just didn’t take care of himself. He liked to drink,” Larry said.

And the Nazi painting? Larry doesn’t remember anything about that.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #painting #portrait #pdx

Larry said Art probably painted the portrait during a special topics art class on Native Americans, which Art would teach every two years or so. “He had a special attachment or fondness of Native Americans, and Art liked to connect students to the local history, especially with the treaty here in Mankato.” Art would paint right along with his students, explaining the techniques he was using. “He was very hands on,” he said.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #portrait #painting #dakota

From “Harper’s Weekly,” January 1863.

The treaty Larry mentioned took place in Mankato, Minnesota, in the 1850s. The U.S. Government broke that agreement in 1862 and got what people now call the “Sioux Uprising,” a war between feds and Dakota, that ended in the trial and hanging of 38 Native Americans—the largest mass execution in American history.

I liked hearing the story as a kid, the big things that took place where I grew up, how the troops took this road or camped over there. It took until I was well into my own military service for me to fathom the terrible brutality and lack of honor in it.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #portrait #painting #art #massexecution

For years I thought Art’s title for the painting—The Indian Gall—was a bit of sarcasm about “gall,” as in bold, impudent behavior. “Those galling Indians. How dare they violently fight for rights to the land they’ve lived on for hundreds of years?” Turns out that was probably a misreading. “Gall” also means “gall bladder,” of course, and people get named for the strangest things.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #painting #art #portrait #pdx #custerslaststand

Chief Phizí, whose Lakota name translates to “gall bladder,” acted as military chief for Sitting Bull in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. Gall, as he came to be known, took five years to surrender to U.S. forces after defeating Custer, but when he did surrender he worked peacefully with federal agents on a South Dakota reservation until his death in 1894, trying to reconcile the two peoples.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #painting #art #pdx #portrait #thegallofthatman

This is my best guess at the source Art Schaible used to paint his portrait of Chief Gall in a St. Peter high school classroom, 1968.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #painting #portrait #art #gall

The photo on the left represents a bunch of fish on ice. On the right, a roiling cauldron of netted fish. Have you ever heard of seining? These photos show something of how my grandfather, Elmer, did it. He and his brother would drive a crew onto one of Minnesota’s many lakes—when the ice is a foot thick, you can park a truck on it—they’d drill a series of holes through the ice in a big ring and use long poles to work a net under the ice, then they’d pull all the fish in the area out with one big sweep. The “rough” fish got tossed into live tanks for the trip to restaurants in New York.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #portrait #art #painting #seining

The Rutz Bros. had Native Americans on their seining crew, pictured here. One story about them, with segregationist tones, destroyed the idea in me that my neighbors were better than those people down south who gave African Americans such a hard time. After a long day seining, Elmer and the crew sat down at a restaurant in tiny Morristown, MN. The waitress refused to serve the Indians. Apparently Elmer’s blood took a quick boil and a major argument broke out between patrons and the restaurateur. I don’t think there was any violence that night, but the story makes me wonder how often this kind of thing still happens. Minnesota racism—echoes of the Sioux Uprising?

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #portrait #art #painting #minnesotaracism

This photo, like Art’s portrait of Gall, conjures many strange beauties for me—like an archeological artifact, battered and struck through by new growth. My brother Karl took this photo as a teenager in the late 1990s. If you look closely below the bullet-riddled window on this dead husk of truck you can read, “Elmer G. Rutz/ Waterville, Minn.” It’s a relic of those seining days that sat in the cow pasture, an inviting place for a tree to take root and for growing boys to build a fort.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #pdx #art #portrait #treesgrowinginfunnyplaces

That’s a stuffed fish on a pile of junk on the farm, and my father going through boxes—photo by me in May 2007. A world record for a carp at the time, Elmer’s seining crew netted it on Parley Lake in the early 1950s. At the time it was caught, my dad’s nine-year-old body matched the length and weight of the fish. He said it was the Rutz Bros’ big claim to fame, and they tried to cash in. Elmer and Arnold “would put it on display in bars and have the info on the board it was mounted on. They got very little for their efforts other than thanks and a beer.” For me this bends the classic big fish story from the realm of tall tales into something sad.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #portrait #painting #art #worldrecordcarp

I’m not sure when this photo was taken, but it’s in the Rutz family collection, and so this image of a car swept into the water feels like part of my heritage. Art’s painting is like that, a link to the epic world the ancestors seem to have lived in—floods and famines.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #painting #art #pdx #flood #aestheticallypleasingsinkingcar

Photo by Mariano Cecowski, Argentina, 2005.

Looking at Art’s portrait is a little like viewing handprints in a cave—evidence of the ancestors really being here, a piece of creative debris from what must have been enormous expressive output, now mostly lost. Like a handprint, it’s a one-of-a-kind signature and a universal, human portrait at the same time.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #painting #art #portrait #handprints #cavepainting

Little by little we change the pictures we love—and not just our perception of them. Here’s a shot of Art’s painting as it sat on my easel recently. I set it up to shoot photos for this series and noticed my handprint in the dust. I’m seeing this painting in many new ways thanks to this little Insta-series, and here my fingerprints have become evidence of physical, chemical additions I’m unknowingly making to it.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #portrait #painting #artrestoration

A couple years ago, I removed the yellowing varnish from Art’s painting, cleaned it, and revarnished it with Gamvar for first-rate archival protection. It took more than confidence in the chemistry of oil paint to decide I had the right to overhaul it, though. Looking back, I realize it took owning my own house and starting my own family.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #painting #portrait #artrestoration #gamvarpicturevarnish

A painting isn’t just its subject matter. Brush strokes are a record of the painter’s bodily activity, and when I revarnished Art’s portrait, I was undoing some of that, replacing some of it with some of my own. We have to do that to the objects that link us to the past, or watch them rot.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #pdx #portrait #painting

In his excellent book What Painting Is, James Elkins writes, “To an artist, a picture is both a sum of ideas and a blurry memory of ‘pushing paint,’ breathing fumes, dripping oils and wiping brushes, smearing and diluting and mixing. Bleary preverbal thoughts are intermixed with the namable concepts, figures and forms that are being represented.”

#marchofthetalismanportrait #portrait #painting #art #pdx #whatpaintingis

“All the past can help you,” writes painter Robert Henri. I’m told I’m a very detail oriented painter, obsessed with accuracy. Art Schaible’s painting draws me in because it isn’t my kind of picture, yet it still gets me to buzz with emotion. I wonder if I’d like this picture so much if I had known Art. He isn’t here. His painting is.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #art #portrait #painting #pdx #goodadvice

I look at this painting every day. Any viewer can be forgiven for deciding Art’s picture is ugly, or that it doesn’t deserve the attention I’m giving it here. But everyone loves things other people find ridiculous (more on that tomorrow). Some day I want to make a picture that affects someone as thoroughly and as unexpectedly as this one has me.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #painting #portrait #livingroomdecor

The painting I hang over the fireplace as talisman to aid my own work barely competes with my wife’s talismans to the king of pop. This photo shows just a hint of the memorabilia she and her twin sister have collected: doll, blanket, pillows, book, mug, bowl, soda can and more. Check back tomorrow for even more.

#themarchofthetalismanportrait #thisisridiculous #art #areyoukiddingme #pdx #michaeljackson #livingwithmichaeljacksonobsessives

A picture of marriage. My wife dresses up as Michael Jackson—most recently two weeks ago, out for drinks and karaoke. She allows me to put Art’s portrait of Gall on the wall, and I indulge her requests to dress up as Blanket or Elizabeth Taylor and act as entourage to her one-gloved jazz pop moves.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #costume #michaeljackson #mywifeasadeadpopstar #michaeljacksonanonymous

I’m no longer the kid who would feel intimidated by this foreign and dark and alluring face. It’s in my space now, and after a month looking deeper into its stories, the painting’s mystery and power has shrunk to even more manageable size. This painting appeals to me differently today than it did even last month.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #pdx #art #painting #portrait

I set out this month to explain why a portrait by an obscure painter hangs above my fireplace, and ultimately it comes to this: For whatever reason, Art Schaible’s painting keeps leaping out of its frame when I look at it. The simple picture contains little but suggests much more to me, and it makes life feel fuller than my daily routine.

#marchofthetalismanportrait #painting #portrait #art #pdx

Thanks to SeenEugene Magazine for publishing this photo during the reception for my solo show in Springfield, Oregon, last week. We Are Full Body Viewers, 17 paintings of athletes on display until the end of the month at Emerald Art Center—the building with the famous Simpsons mural.

500 Main Street, Springfield, Oregon

We just hung a big show, titled We Are Full Body Viewers, on display at Emerald Art Gallery in Springfield, Oregon through March. Thanks to Paula Goodbar, the gallery director, for inviting me to be the gallery’s guest for the month.

We’ll celebrate with a hearty reception March 13, 5-8pm, with the usual goodies. Seventeen full body paintings, dancers, athletes… so much musculoskeletal effort resonating in paint. Join us!

Emerald Art Gallery, 500 Main Street, Springfield, Oregon

The USO, famous for bringing entertainment and aid to troops for decades, has published a little something about us! Thank you to Samantha Quigley and the rest of the editors at the USO’s magazine, On Patrol, for posting news about my collaboration with sculptor Christopher Wagner focused on combat veterans. Our two-media portraits are on display on Vashon Island, Washington, just across Puget Sound from Seattle, until February 26.

Blue Heron Gallery at Vashon Allied Arts
19704 Vashon Hwy SW
Vashon Island, Washington

Here’s a virtual tour around the bend at the current stop for Between Here and There, my 2014 collaboration with sculptor Christopher Wagner, on display on Vashon Island, Washington, until the end of February 2015. (Click here for details.)

Christopher shot these photos while we did the tech run on our speech and slide show. We were thrilled not just to see this room fill up right after these pics were taken, but also to answer so many excellent questions.

Thanks to Janice Mallman and the crew who hung and lit the show—an inviting oasis of warm in the Pacific Northwest winter. I enjoyed the play of shadows on the walls and podiums from Christopher’s sculpted hands and legs.

Big thanks to all who came to share good food and hear us speak about this project!


Between Here and There, our series of ten sculptures and ten paintings of combat veterans, is on the road. Next stop, Vashon Island, Washington, just across Puget Sound from Seattle. Sculptor Christopher Wagner and I are trucking the portraits up midweek, and we’ll be there for a talk and reception starting Friday, February 6, at 5:30pm. Snacks and drinks of course, to go with what the people on the island call the Gallery Cruise. (I’m happy to repeat that nautical pun.)

A few of our veterans also plan to be there, so it should be a good time to talk about what all this posing and painting and sculpting meant to us.

In the mean time, here’s a happy interview with me and Chris to give you the gist of what we think we did:

Vashon Allied Arts, 19704 Vashon Highway SW, Vashon Island, Washington

If you’re in the area, please consider joining us for a group show at Riversea Gallery in Astoria. Bringing together a few painters with contracts at the gallery, the director asked us to choose a person whose life is somehow extraordinary and portray an aspect of that person through objects he or she uses or echo an environment that speaks of them.

I chose to reexamine my wife Whitney’s clothes, focusing on the “close” part of the show’s title. Frankly, I expected the other painters would represent lives more obviously extraordinary. But of course her life is amazing! Whit is living in an extraordinary moment for women as a new mother who sports a nose ring and travels across the continent as a government contractor—an excellent representative of today’s many flavors of feminism: professional, punk, maternal and muscular.

The show opens with a reception January 10, with all the wine-and-food happiness we expect at that excellent establishment.

Riversea Gallery, 1160 Commercial Street, Astoria, Oregon

The final portrait in our series Between Here and There portrays Lt. Col. Alisha Hamel, a historian and Army National Guard veteran who fought in the first Gulf War. Her story, which she told in bursts while sculptor Christopher Wagner and I mixed and drew and painted and carved, has two kinds of minority views in it: that of a female combatant and that of an oft forgotten war.

A few months ago she helped connect us with Bill Keys, a World War II vet who turned 90 while we worked on his portrait. Alisha came to see the progress during one of those sessions, and we asked her if she wouldn’t mind posing as our second female, represeting both a transition in women’s roles in our military and the veterans from a short war we tend to overlook in the grand combat narrative sweep between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan.

Remember the Gulf War? After aggressive action by a Mideast dictator, President George Bush—that’s H.W., not W—gathered a coalition of 34 nations with UN resolutions in hand, said, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait,” and efficiently pushed the dictator’s troops out of the way, inadvertently starting a military involvement in the region that continues today. I turned twelve as the “Desert Shield” buildup gave way to the “Desert Storm” aerial bombardment and a three-week ground war, the first real-time cable news clash between nations.

In 1990 Alisha, a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant, had been in her job one week when her unit was called up. She said they were the first Oregon unit deployed since World War II. (Since there are no big bases or forts in Oregon, that makes sense.) Her unit handled “air terminal movement control,” which means helping other units arrive safely to a location via air. Alisha was one of the first troops deployed.

She served as the Battalion S-1—the junior officer who managed the logistical arrival of people, parts and vehicles, clearing the way of any traffic jams as transport aircraft and trucks and so on arrived to the Saudi desert.

As a woman in an conservative Muslim kingdom, she was not allowed to drive and usually made do with a male driver who sported huge coke bottle glasses. She joked about seeing all the potential road mishaps that he couldn’t, and once, she said, her driver took a wrong turn and almost took them into Kuwait just as the allies were warming up to invade the area.

Sometimes, for the sake of efficiency and safety, Alisha disobeyed orders and drove herself, watching some Saudi women cheer when they saw her drive past.

Alisha went into combat in an amazing moment of transition for women in our military. For the first time, she said, “In Desert Storm, women were actually expected to be in positions that were not necessarily female roles.” That is, they deployed for the first time not just as secretaries or nurses but as combat pilots, logistics officers and more. With each subsequent conflict, the role of women has increased, and the Pentagon is still learning how to manage the logistical, legal and other challenges that come when men and women work the same combat jobs and sleep and take showers in the same areas.

Because the more things change…

Alisha was one of a long line of women in our military who had to weather harassment of many kinds. Unwanted sexual advances from one superior got bad enough that she had to transfer to a different unit just before deployment to Saudi Arabia.

Twenty-four years after her combat deployment she identifies as a minority of a different sort: as a veteran of a quick war that didn’t stamp itself on the national consciousness with near the severity of the ones that came before and after. As a result her generation of veterans doesn’t qualify for the post-9/11 benefits in the GI Bill, as well as other similar benefits from the VA, and no national memorial site (unless you count this virtual one).

It all reminds me of French critic Jean Baudrillard’s book of essays The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, written during and immediately after that conflict. Baudrillard makes the sassy argument that the Gulf War, which appeared to be a war, really wasn’t one. War, for Baudrillard, can’t have a predetermined outcome. It has to be a contest between equals that breeds heroism and memorials and a generation that wrestles with its aftermath. The last hot war, World War II, gave way to the Cold War, and then, in 1990, “America, Saddam Hussein and the Gulf powers are fighting over the corpse of war” (23).

For Baudrillard, a critic bent on the idea that modern life is full of simulations of events that replace real relationships with each other and our environment, the live CNN images of green tracers arcing toward unseen fighter/bombers, the mind-boggling deployment of troops and materiel, and the bloodless language of “surgical strikes” and “kinetic warfare” gave the whole enterprise the look and feel of a video game.

(An aside: According to accounts widely cited in 1991 and repeated in Baudrillard’s book, more bombs were dropped by allied forces on Iraq and Kuwait during that six-week air bombardment than all the tonnage dropped in World War II, but that doesn’t hold water. This article cites both those errant early claims and the later corrections. Official records show about 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped in the 1991 war, compared to 1,613,000 tons dropped over Europe in World War II, which doesn’t factor in the other half of the war, in the Pacific, which also featured the only two nukes ever used in anger.)

Of course for Alisha Hamel, the heat, the Scud missile attacks, the second-class treatment in country, and the harassment from her fellow troops were etched in deep. As Executive Director of the Historical Outreach Foundation, she has dedicated her career to teaching children about combat history, setting aside video game style attractions for hands-on displays of real equipment and uniforms, teaching mostly about wars she never saw. It’s a worthy mission performed honorably by someone trying to help the next generation of military members—women and men—get a more fair shake than she did.

Now in its 14th year, Guardino Gallery’s “Little Things” show is a Portland institution. If you’re looking for a good gift of painting or sculpture or assemblage, everything here is little and original: maximum 7 inches per side… and it’s reasonably priced.

Go forth! Shop local:

Guardino Gallery: 30th and Alberta, NE