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). See this refresher on Fallujah, and this one, to get a sense of what he’s talking about.
“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” in America during 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 shrugs and 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. They 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—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.