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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.

This photo doesn’t come close to capturing the many-walled fun at Riversea Gallery in Astoria, nor does it capture much of my 18-painting contribution there, but be assured. That gallery is a many-flavored, beautiful sight. My show runs until mid-July, but I’ll be taking my place with the rest of the group for the foreseeable. Check it out when you’re on the coast!

We had been talking about a smattering of topics related to the 2003 Iraq invasion, but I must admit I wasn’t paying my best attention to the conversation between the soldier posing for his portrait and the sculptor next to me. I was mixing a color, or hunting for a new brush, when I heard the soldier say, “That was my company! Idiots.”

“What was your company?” I asked him.

“You know, the lion. Or was it a tiger?”

“Oh yeah,” said my partner in portraiture, sculptor Christopher Wagner, “Someone did a graphic novel about it. Something about rescuing the animals, or the animals escaping and going all over the city.”

The soldier had worked as part of a psychological operations unit in Baghdad shortly after the invasion. He was the people who design and publish materials for handing out or broadcasting to civilians and the enemy, telling the story from the American point of view, or warning them to lay down their arms or face serious consequences.

I wondered what poster or radio bit they’d do to spin the story he sketched for us. The details were foggy, but more or less it went like this: A bunch of drunk soldiers go into the Baghdad zoo soon after the invasion and start taunting a big cat—either a lion or a tiger. The cat attacks one guy who’s dumb enough to go into the cage, ripping off his arm. His companions shoot it, then they—the government or somebody—get another cat from the United States to replace the Baghdad Zoo cat they shot.

I had to look this up.

Sure enough, a quick internet search brings up articles from an array of publications, including the Los Angeles TimesAssociated Press, the Russian newspaper Pravda, and Agence France-Presse. Great Britain’s Globe and Mail apparently picked up the AP wire with this headline from Sept. 20, 2003: “‘Drunk’ US Soldier Shoots Rare Tiger in Baghdad Zoo.”

Here’s the lead: “A U.S. soldier shot and killed an endangered tiger at the Baghdad zoo after it bit another soldier who had drunkenly reached through the bars of its cage to feed it, a security guard said Saturday.” The story goes on to say that other sources have him going into the cage and that the tiger mauled the soldier’s arm and tore off one of his fingers. The tiger, which had been born at the zoo and had lived there 14 years, wasn’t the only animal that got into trouble with people during and after the 2003 invasion. The story says a bear “mauled and partially ate three civilians,” and it mentions three lions “shot to death when they tried to pounce on a contingent of invading American soldiers.” Hence the motivation for the graphic novel about the zoo animals running amok?

Then I found USA Today reported in 2008 that two Bengal tiger cubs were donated by a North Carolina animal sanctuary to the Baghdad Zoo in some kind of connection to that 2003 drunk soldier incident.

And there’s more to the story. First off, a clue on why the confusion between lion and tiger. A little more research brings up a South African named Lawrence Anthony, who wrote the book Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo. His 2007 interview on NPR’s now cancelled show Talk of the Nation references a lion named “Marjan” that became famous in Kabul, Afghanistan, especially after the American invasion there. “He was blinded. He had a hand grenade thrown at him. He was left starving in his cage.” Anthony says that story was part of his reason for trying to rescue animals in the Baghdad zoo. (Incidentally, he’s known as the first non-journalist civilian to travel from Kuwait into Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. The statue had been pulled down by a tank recovery vehicle; Iraqis were shown on a video loop hitting it with shoes. We all remember that scene.)

Anthony says he found a disaster in Baghdad. “Absolutely horrific.” On his arrival to the zoo, he was told that shooting the animals was the only way to humanely deal with this, the largest zoo in the Middle East. Looters had taken food, water, and animals to be sold or consumed. “The city was starving at the time. So they were eating the animals.” Every day, he would visit all the rest of the animals, those with claws and jaws big enough to defend themselves from the looters. He tried to keep them from becoming too stressed out. He cleaned their cages, haggled to get generators to power the zoo (while the whole city begged for electricity), and bought donkeys in the area, slaughtering them to feed the big cats and bears.

In the interview, he references the graphic novel. Alas lions running around Baghdad isn’t true, says Anthony. Three lions did escape briefly and all were promptly shot.

“I don’t personally believe in the concept of zoos,” Anthony says at the end of the interview. He prefers to preserve habitat. He went to Baghdad for the animals, he says. And good things came from that for people, too. Since Anthony did his work there, there has not been any bomb or shooting inside the zoo.

“In a way it seems that it was easier to rally around the cause of these animals than it was to rally around anything else,” observes host Neil Conan. I love that line for the way it’s both obvious and deeply insightful.

All this got me wondering about the difference between the reaction to the death of a noble, prized cat and the deaths of people. With an estimated 140,000 civilian dead due to the invasion and subsequent violence in Iraq (see Iraq Body Count https://www.iraqbodycount.org), does America owe in a similar way? Should we take the county of Alamance, North Carolina, where the tiger cubs were born (Population: 153,000), and transfer everyone to Iraq to replace those dead? That’s politically impossible, even if you don’t see how unjust it would be to North Carolinians—but what’s the difference when it comes to animals? What is it about a big cat that sparks the complicated set of motivations in a guy like Lawrence Anthony? He felt moved to rescue cats, not people. He did this harrowing thing to keep these animals alive by revitalizing a zoo, yet he despises the concept of zoos.

Listening to Anthony’s interview, I thought of Jean Baudrillard’s essay “The Animals.” He writes, “our sentimentality toward animals is a sure sign of the disdain in which we hold them. … It is in proportion to being relegated to irresponsibility, to the inhuman, that the animal becomes worthy of the human ritual of affection and protection, just as the child does in direct proportion to being relegated to the status of innocence and childishness” (Simulacra and Simulation, p. 134). Baudrillard’s job as a literary critic was to provoke (and sound smart by writing complicated sentences). He’s saying that as our species has grown and learned to make our environment more comfortable for us, we’ve lost our respect for animals as dangerous, mysterious equals. It’s that old Great Chain of Being story. God the Creator made us in His image and gave us dominion over the animals and the earth. It’s ours to manage, so we can either profit from animals or show animals sentimental affection. The choice is “cat as possession” or “cat as dependent.” Neither grants cats power on the level of autonomous adults.

As a painter I’m still trying to pin down what this zoo incident and the reactions to it mean for our daily studio practice, making these portraits with veterans who were there, doing their best at the zoo. Something about the consequences of combat being wider and stranger than we expect, and being available to the emotional education we can find if we look deeper into the stories we tell.

“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.

This week I’ll deliver my first batch of paintings to Riversea Gallery. The show, titled Idle Hands, will open June 14, coinciding with the Astoria Music Festival, which also opens mid-June.

Whit, Elcy and I will enjoy an opening reception at Riversea from 5pm to 8pm, June 14, and we’ll take in plenty of other coastal musical goodness that weekend.

Also don’t miss watercolorist Ruth Armitage in the Riversea alcove, opening along with my show, June 14.

Riversea Gallery 1160 Commercial Street, Astoria, Oregon

It has to do with the bracelet one of our Iraq veterans wears on his right wrist. You’ve probably seen one like it—a stainless steel cuff with name, rank, and date of death—if not in person, then perhaps in a televised presidential debate. And it has to do with an ill-advised tattoo, the kind of thing a guy might wish he could get removed except for what that removal would do to the memory of a dead friend.

I recently finished a piece with my partner in portraiture, sculptor Christopher Wagner, portraying a senior enlisted soldier who posed for us while playing his guitar. It’s one of ten two-media portraits of combat vets we aim to finish by the end of the year. Each portrait takes dozens of hours, and inevitably we get to talking about the vets’ experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, in this case.

Two months and a number of beers into the process, we asked our guitar-playing Sergeant Major how his friend died. “Vehicular IED,” he replied.

I was adding the final touches to my painting of his shoulder, which sports a little tattoo, a green/black inky insect shape. “This is the kind of thing you do when you’re young, drunk, and enlisted in the Pacific,” he said as he watched me measure the tattoo for copying onto my canvas. “I just picked it out. I thought it was badass. At the time it looked like a scorpion.” After the inking, when he found out his tattoo was designed as the zodiac sign for Cancer, he decided he didn’t like it. He has no connection to Cancer and doesn’t have any wish to remember that particular drunk night on deployment. He’s not sure he knows anyone who was born a Cancer. (Chris and I weren’t able to offer a case for the value of zodiac tattoos. We couldn’t even remember which part of the year Cancer occupies.) Our guitarist said he would remove it in a heartbeat, but the thing is, the guy whose name and date of death is on his right wrist got the same tattoo that night.

As we put the finishing touches on our portraits, and our Sergeant Major looked at my rendering of his bad tattoo, he told us the story of his friend’s death. Years after getting the tattoos in the Pacific, our guitarist’s friend was driving a truck in Iraq with one other crew member, a fifty-year-old woman manning the truck’s gun who our Sergeant Major says shouldn’t have been there. She had been discharged from the service, ready to live the rest of her life as a civilian but was recalled to active duty from the IRR, the Individual Ready Reserve, a force of ex-soldiers who are normally supposed to do nothing with the Army except keep their information current in case they need to be mobilized for World War III. Our Sergeant Major said a small white car rammed their vehicle, tried and failed to set off the bomb inside, then before the IRR reservist could kill the car’s driver, he repeated the effort and succeeded in blowing both vehicles away.

Chris has etched both the bracelet and the tattoo into his sculpture with the eye for documentary detail we have practiced throughout these studio sessions. I can’t see the bracelet from where I chose to paint my half of our Sergeant Major’s portrait. But the tattoo is prominent. I kind of prefer it that way. To me it’s a portrait of the accidental symbolism of that tattoo, a reminder that under the right circumstances what we otherwise might regret can turn into our most precious mark.

“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.

As I Remember It, 2014

Cast Polyurethane, 16” x 14” x 8”

 

By Christopher B. Wagner

There is a lifetime of experience separating the Vietnam vets we see from who they were when they went to war. The events that piled themselves onto young men, younger than I am now, shaped the much older men who are sitting in front of me. I am only now coming to understand how young those men were who went to war. I am only now about to turn thirty and I look at who I am now versus who I was at eighteen, two completely different people. I can’t help but think back at that age and see myself as a kid. So as I listen to the stories our two Vietnam vets tell I can’t help but try to put the mental image of who I was as an eighteen year old in the situations that they themselves where put in. To empathize with someone is all well and good but sometimes there can be such a gulf of experience that you can’t help hitting a wall.

They talk about decisions that they are proud of and those they regret. The entire time I can’t help but think how the men in front of me could be the same people who did the things they describe. Their narratives will swing from building a work bench to capturing a village or playing squash to almost triggering a trip line to a booby trap. It is easy to keep the distance between us, to say, “I cannot put myself in their younger shoes so how can I remotely understand what they went through?”

Undoubtedly that is true, but it doesn’t mean you don’t try, that you don’t listen. I can respect who these wonderful men are now and see how events experienced a lifetime before helped shape them, whether they are who they are now because of what the experienced or in spite what they experienced.

Our veteran portrait project, Between Here and There, is made possible by a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

Opening the first Thursday of May, I’ll be doing a small solo show at Glyph, a coffee shop and arts space in cahoots with the Pacific Northwest College of Art here in Portland. 

The owners, two professors who teach locally, curate a multi-genre show every month, inviting a writer, a music group, and a painter or photographer or other wall-hangings maker to share their work and talk about it.

I’ll have an opening there on Thursday, May 1, followed by a lecture Monday, May 12, at 7pm. They tell me there will be a critic or academic there to respond to my work.

Let the aesthetic pugilisms begin!

804 NW Couch St. Portland, OR 97209

From foreground, sculptor Christopher Wagner works on a portrait of an Army veteran playing guitar, along with painter Paul X. Rutz. Their series, titled Between Here and There, will go on display at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon, in November 2014.

 

My partner and I are developing a special relationship—probably not unique as far as these things go, but important to us after the trial and error we’ve put into it.

Sculptor Christopher Wagner and I meet almost daily most weeks in my Northeast Portland studio to paint and mold images of combat veterans. Right now, we’re booked pretty solid with men and women willing to sit, stand and twist through the dynamic poses we negotiate with them, talking through whatever topics come up, singing along occasionally with the iPod songs. It wasn’t always so.

I make it a point to work with live people in my studio almost all the time, trying to work through questions on how we see and what picturing an event is, rather than relying on the ease (and distortions) of photography. I find models to help me in that inquiry all over the place—sometimes relatives and coworkers, sometimes friends of friends or a guy at a bar. But none of my usual model finding habits could fit the criteria for this project.

I moved to Portland three years ago, and when Chris and I wrote our grant to fund this project, I could think of only one combat vet I knew well in this city. He became our first model, and we portrayed him texting his friends to find someone else who might be interested in posing for us. In our off hours, Chris and I hit the internets to find more.

We would get names and phone numbers, leave messages about the importance of the project, and not hear back. Or we’d hear back, make plans to start the portrait, and watch those plans get scratched by circumstance. That happened with one guy who sounded perfect over the phone. He said he was enthusiastic about the goal of these portraits and had a day job working in the veterans community. He would’ve had some excellent stories, I think, from not only his job as a vets advocate, but also his past as a gay Air Force enlistee. As soon as we locked down a date to start posing, he took a new job in Seattle.

It was like dating. I thought if there were a dating site for connections between portraitists and vets, we were ready with our list of most desired traits. “I want someone who can meet [fill in the blank], who cares about [these things], who represents diversity [in these ways].” Type in the answers and the algorithm would find the right match. We tried Craigslist and the like, and that gave us zero leads.

In ten portraits of combat veterans, by the way, how many ways can you spell “diversity”? Age and theater of service went hand in hand: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan—each combat theatre brought with it veterans of a certain age range. What about branch? Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, or maybe a foreign military? Gender: Male combat vets were easiest to find, but given the shifting roles of women in our military we should seek to portray females. Should we stop with the binary gender division or go deeper? (Bradley/Chelsea Manning came to mind.)  Sexual identity: Good-bye “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” hello gay servicemembers finally able to talk openly about their home lives! Ethnicity: the city of Portland, I’m learning all over again, is a very white town.

We told ourselves not to chase diversity too hard since there’s no way to capture the tastes and quirks of thousands of combat vets in just ten portraits. And that was the point from the beginning: making portraits of individuals: putting aside statistics to focus on particular, human interactions, not in abstractions about a population.

These days our schedule is filling with veterans because we eventually found that bridging gaps between the military and artistic communities is easier when our models are members of both groups. Circles of shared taste simply matter. Posing for this kind of live portrait—thirty or forty hours in a studio over a month or two with two guys looking at you—requires faith that an effort like that will lead to something important. There are plenty of easier ways to spend one’s free time. So as much as we would like our project is about bridging gaps between the veteran and arts communities, perhaps we’re not building as many new bridges as we’d like, but strengthening existing ones.

The dating continues. Chris and I visited a gallery this past week that put on a show of pictures by veterans in need. Some three-person coffee dates will follow, and hopefully we’ll fill our portrait schedule through the summer.

“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.

By Christopher B. Wagner

This past week Paul and I finished working with our first model in the “Between Here and There” project. Despite having the modeling finished, I still needed a lot of work to have a completed sculpture. During the modeling session I used plasticine clay, which is an oil based clay that can’t be fired, but it also won’t dry out. This makes it ideal for sculpting because there is no need to continuously wet it or even to cover it at the end of each session—but in order to create a finished piece I must make a mold of it. Afterwards I can cast the sculpture in a number of different archival materials.

In preparation for making a mold I went over the sculpture, plotting seam lines, figuring out how many parts the mold will be broken down into, and whether or not it will need to be cut apart. I also need to decide how many molds to make. For this first piece in the series I had to cut off the model’s left arm and create a separate mold for it in order to remove undercuts which I couldn’t work around. I was able to do the main body of the sculpture with a three-part mold.

For this project I used a rubber and fiberglass mold. The first layer, which is painted on, is a two-part silicone rubber which is very flexible and can capture pristine details. Multiple layers of the rubber are necessary to give the required strength for multiple castings. The rubber alone isn’t enough for making a mold though; it needs a rigid “mother mold,” which keeps the rubber in the right place for casting. This can be a variety of rigid casting materials but I used a fiberglass. With an assembled mold I cast a copy of the sculpture into polyurethane.

Many hours are required to finalize the piece. This includes cleaning up seam lines, reassembling the sculpture, filling it with a rigid material to add strength to the polyurethane (in this case I used expanding foam), and finally painting it. The initial casting is referred to as an artist proof and basically serves as a prototype for the sculpture edition. As of right now I am still experimenting with finishes, deciding how I will finalize the piece’s surface. For me the final decision regarding a finish is the most tedious element of the entire process. I will certainly be obsessing about it for the next few days if not weeks.

Available online here, PDX Magazine has published a couple photos of my paintings to help illustrate an interview with Bob Priest, founder of March Music Moderne, an annual contemporary-classical music festival here in Portland. Good stuff!