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Photo by Ross Blanchard, PDX Magazine.

Here’s a shot of sculptor Christopher Wagner (yellow hat), my collaborator on this series, laughing at me as I show my tattoo to a group of people at our opening Nov. 7. I was explaining how I got inked at Atlas Tattoo, just up the street from the gallery, and how fun it was to find out that’s the same place Ron Baker (our Vietnam vet with full body dragon tattoos) got his.

Thanks to everyone who came… an amazing turnout and an evening full of some of the most lively conversations I’ve ever had about painting and sculpture and military service and beer and pumpkin flavored cookies.

We’ll be back at the gallery to chat some more this Thursday, Nov. 13, from 6-9 pm.

Good: A Gallery: 4325 N. Mississippi, Portland, Ore.

As part of our portrait series, we’ve decided to add little two-line captions to our paintings and sculptures of combat veterans. We hung the show yesterday, and on the wall near one sculpture/painting combination, we put this label: “Between sessions posing for his portrait, he attempted to set a record collecting stamps for the McMenamins passport from all 53 locations in less than 24 hours—he concluded it’s impossible without a helicopter.”

Once in a while sculptor Christopher Wagner and I did audio recordings of a session as we worked on our two-media portraits of combat veterans. Some of the most entertaining clips came from Jack O’Neal, a senior enlisted Army psychological operations specialist who also served as a translator in Iraq.

Jack is a tinkerer, a constant rethinker. We portrayed him with one of his inventions, a glove to help bicyclists make visible hand signals at night—very Portland, we thought. Jack said he was sick of almost crashing into cyclists after dark when he drove his car, so he made a glove for the left hand that presents different flashing arrows depending on which direction the hand is raised, whether out to the left for a left turn, bent up for a right turn, or bent down to signal “stop.”

“Wait,” Chris asked. “You’re not a cyclist?” Nope, said Jack. He just saw a problem that needed to be fixed.

That combination of creativity and tenacity seems to permeate his entire life.

Jack told us one day all about his aquaponics work, which he learned how to do in Afghanistan. It’s essentially a fish bowl that grows food. “I’ve got basil, cherry tomatoes; I’ve got green beans, just off one little goldfish,” he said. “You can do tilapia, trout. Next time we’re gonna do trout. I like the trout taste.”

Then came the conversation about McMenamins, an Oregon company known for turning historical buildings into pubs, hotels and theatres, saving them from demolition and turning a profit across the state. This time the tape recorder was rolling when Jack told us about the company’s “Cosmic Tripster” passport (a term he said he dislikes because it makes holders of the passport sound like drug addicts). He and his wife traveled to every McMenamins location this past summer, acquiring stamps in little books that the company sells for $25. When they finished they got a bunch of prizes, including a six-night stay in one of the McMenamins hotels.

Problem: Jack had just gone swimming and ruined his fully-stamped passport.

Solution: Try to get all the stamps in another passport in under 24 hours, setting a McMenamins Cosmic Tripster land speed record in the process.

“I wanted to do this anyway, so it kind of works out for me,” he said. “I’ve already started planning the route, and I think I’d have to start in Bend around 7pm. If you hit the Bend locations, you drive down to Roseburg, and then you start working your way up I-5 and get as far as you can—I think if you can make it to the McMinnville one before they close down and get those stamps, I think you could be set up for the next day to have a successful day and get it completed before 7pm. But with some of my initial calculations, we’re looking at having to drive like 85 miles an hour the entire way. But if you’re working with somebody, you basically have a navigator, the guy filming it, the copilot. He can do multiple roles…”

Maybe the way to go would be with two vehicles, he said, one as cop bait. Also, he had to plan to tackle the treasure hunts at certain locations. An aspiring Cosmic Tripster has to do a “photo hunt” at Edgefield, for example, to prove he was there.

A friend of his is an amateur filmmaker who would help crew the adventure, film it, and Jack could do a Kickstarter campaign for a rental car, fuel, and food during the attempt.

That campaign didn’t happen, but the attempt did. Jack ended up going solo on the road, driving all over Oregon to get stamps (I didn’t ask how fast), but he came up short and admitted he’d just have to travel faster to get it done. Next try, he’ll have to add a good pilot to the crew.

Between Here and There, a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner have been brushing and carving into all year, goes on display tomorrow, November 7, 2014, at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

Join me and sculptor Christopher Wagner at Good: A Gallery this Friday, November 7, from 7 to 10pm. We’ll be celebrating our year of working with combat veterans from around the Portland area, portraits of vets from World War II, through today’s wars. Meet them, chat over a beverage, and enjoy a good start to the weekend with Scott Foster, the generous and professional owner of the gallery. Good times!

Good: A Gallery, 4325 N. Mississippi Ave, Portland, Ore.

Photo by Michael Roe

Here’s a photo of me presenting the thoughts behind the series Between Here and There: Portraits of Veterans, which sculptor Christopher Wagner and I have been working on for about a year. We did the talk at the Ford Building, in SE Portland, in the production spaces for PDX Magazine. The show of painted/sculpted portraits opens this Friday, November 7, at Good: A Gallery here in Portland.

Thanks to all who showed up to share the beer!

To celebrate the publication of their upcoming issue, and the move to their new office/event space, PDX Magazine has invited me to give a talk about the portrait project Christopher Wagner and I have been sculpting and painting into with combat veterans this year. 

Here’s a link to the Facebook event at the Ford Building: 
https://www.facebook.com/events/912297068797769/

The party starts at 8pm, in what the editors are calling their “art cave” (which makes me curious). Beer, wine, foods, goodness…

Also look for an article about this portrait series in the Lake Oswego Review, scheduled to come out at the end of October. This project is getting a little attention. And rightly so. We think we’re doing something special with these veterans.

PDX Magazine
Ford Building
2505 SE 11th Ave, Suite B27
Portland, Oregon 97202

By Christopher B. Wagner

Over the past month the focus of my studio work has revolved around the process of making molds for four of the finished clay portraits. Paul had been in India working with his father to install a pipe organ, giving us a break from our continuous model schedule, a break I needed to catch up on producing finished pieces. This time has allowed me to reorient myself in my own studio, which has been somewhat neglected over the course of our Veteran portrait project and given me time to reflect. All the hours of modeling and conversation had blended in my mind, so taking the time to digest the experience while finishing work has been cathartic.

My mind wanders to the jungles of Vietnam while breaking apart the body of our model Ron whom I had to be cut into four pieces in order to cast it; a separate mold for each of his arms, one for his right leg, and a large mold for his torso. I spend somewhere in the proximity of 20 to 30 extra hours of work beyond the modeling phase to produce a final representation of him. He is cast with a polyurethane skin, which captures all the detail of the original clay, every tool mark and the occasional fingerprint and then filled with concrete to anchor him. I line up the seams of his arms and leg, drill holes and insert threaded steel rods to hold him together. I haven’t weighed him yet but a half-sized portrayal of a human being filled with concrete is heavy. Several layers of acrylic paint simplify the complexity of his actual tattoos, but I feel just enough is captured to give the sense of them. Over the top of the paint I apply a thin wash of black, which brings out the details of his carved tattoos and wrinkles. Finally a dry brushing of white creates highlights and serves to unify the overall composition.

I perform a similar set of steps with varying levels of complexity for each of the veteran portraits. Several can be cast in one solid piece, which sounds like it should be less work, and it is less work on the back end—but in the beginning, where I am now, a sculptor has to make a very complicated and time consuming mold to make a solid casting possible. Our World War II veteran Bill, for example, is cast in one solid piece. His upright seated posture, which might be the simplest pose for any of our veterans, makes this possible. The mold for him only required two pieces of rubber, but a seven-piece mother mold. A mother mold serves as an exoskeleton to the flexible rubber. The rubber needs a stable form in order to hold its shape, and since the mother mold is necessarily inflexible, I need many pieces so that I can break it apart once the mold is filled with a rigid material. Part of the trick in casting a sculpture in one piece (and a trade off in time) is layering. Where with Ron, which is broken into several simpler molds, I could cast an arm in one pouring of polyurethane, with Bill I have to pour many small, thin layers to coat all the surfaces in the mold, and each layer has to dry between pourings.

The complicated process that goes into creating a cast sculpture is an arduous series creative and destructive steps. In the end a sculptor has to trust his skill, roll the dice, and hopefully a sculpture will result. I could make several comparisons between this process and our veterans but I will leave that to your consideration. I will say, however, there is nothing quite like the feeling I get at the end of a casting when I’m breaking apart a mold with a rock in my gut, hoping that a usable piece is inside, and I peel back the inner layer to find a well formed face staring back.

It’s almost time for Portland’s annual self-guided studio tour, now in its 16th year. This year 96 sculptors, printers, painters, ceramicists and other professionals of the visual will open our studio doors during the second and third weekends of October.

Map/ticket/calendars for the event are available at all New Seasons stores or online here. You might like the iPhone and Android app instead of the hard copy calendar/map option. GPS!

Take a look at the PDXOS website sample of this year’s offerings, then grab your Open Studios map and come watch us demonstrate what we do.

Here’s something we don’t talk about often enough when we talk about combat: trial and error. Prosecuting a war often means setting aside carefully laid plans in the face of the enemy who actually appears. This post is about starting over, trying whatever off-the-cuff fix one can conjure. When we put them in harm’s way, we ask our troops to dedicate the most creative and sensitive parts of themselves to this deadly serious trial and error, which takes place both in the heat of emergency and during the days between bouts of violence.

This story comes from our recently retired Marine Major, Nick Hurndon, who spent dozens of hours hanging upside-down on gymnastics rings while sculptor Christopher Wagner and I worked on his portrait. Nick served two tours in Iraq as a junior officer, the first tour described in a previous post, and the second focused on one of the most troubling tactical problems of the war.

In my generation, as with previous generations, a particular war’s most disruptive and most feared weapons caused plans to crumble because they had just the right combination of destructive power and logistical elegance in their design. By “elegance” here I mean an easy-to-handle reliability, and ubiquity. Something not too difficult to deploy, and something easy for a military to replicate. Often the simple weapon works best, though that’s not always the case. One could argue the United States’ most disruptive, signature weapon today is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The screaming dive bombers of the Nazi blitzkrieg also come to mind; but if you talk to an American Vietnam vet, the relatively unsophisticated rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) often gets top billing. Author Philip K. Beidler, a former armored cavalry platoon leader, recalls the RPG this way: “Sturdy, simple, easy to carry, assemble and operate, it is reasonably accurate and incredibly destructive. … It is absolutely the worst; and a six-year-old can operate it.”

In Iraq that weapon turned out to be the IED, the improvised explosive device: an old artillery round (or a pack of something else explosive) wired for detonation, often to a receiver ready to take a call from the cell phone of a bystander hiding around the corner or looking innocuously at a newspaper, phone in hand, ready to hit send at just the moment an American humvee rolled by.

Nick said he was part of a number of ad-hoc ways the Marine Corps tried to counter this new threat. Here are the ones I found most noteworthy:

1) The Vietnam-era “thump gun,” or the M-79, is a sort of shotgun/blunderbuss looking thing used in the 1960s to fling a grenade downrange. During Nick’s second tour to Iraq, as the insurgency dug in its heels, boxes of thump guns were shipped to Marines in Iraq to try to blow up any IEDs from a safe distance. However, Nick said Marines had not been trained on how to use them in more than 30 years, and there were no gun ranges or areas to practice using them. So they did it on the fly. They waited for opportunities, live, in the midst of civilian buildings and animals, to blow up suspected IEDs with big unfamiliar grenade launchers. After a few trials and explosive errors they went with other attempts to find a solution.

2) For a while, Nick said, the Marines equipped their vehicles with high-tech jammers meant to keep anyone with a cell phone from using it while the Humvee or other vehicle was near. This experiment worked, but by jamming the frequencies cell phones use, the Americans ended up jamming their ability to use their own radios to communicate with each other. In gaining safety from cell phones, they lost ability to call in air strikes during firefights and coordinate with other ground units, a bad trade.

3) Snipers. It’s hard to get more stealthy and on the insurgent level than snipers. The Marine Corps used their trained marksmen for a time to shoot suspected IEDs. The thought was that by hitting the bomb with a high-velocity bullet, they could possibly disable it. Snipers proved somewhat more effective than the two methods above, especially when the Marine Corps started setting up sniper crews at locations where they thought IEDs would be planted in the future, staking out the scene at night. If a sniper saw someone show up to an intersection with a shovel and a package and start digging, he had authority to “index the target”—that is, use his index finger to pull his rifle’s trigger and kill the shovel-wielding fellow. Of course there are plenty of problems with this strategy. For one, holding a shovel while walking down a road in the predawn hours does not make one an insurgent terrorist. It may instead indicate premeditated ditch digging or underground pipe repair. If you kill the plumber, his family may take it personally.

4) Then came Pedro. If you’ve seen the opening of the movie The Hurt Locker, you have some idea how valuable robots became in the struggle to find and defuse IEDs. Here the Americans hit on their best method, a remote-controled robot with a mechanical arm and a camera to help them dissect at a distance any suspect piles of garbage or new holes in the road. Affectionately nicknamed “Pedro” by Nick and his crew, the bot became invaluable to their work defusing roadside munitions… until the bot blew up. Then a new Pedro would take its place, fresh from the box. As Nick put it, “Pedro died many times.”

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 summer sculptor Chris Wagner and I had a great time working with Bill Keys, a World War II veteran who turned 90 while we were doing his portrait. We loved the change of scenery, packing up our gear and heading out of the studio to meet Bill at his apartment. We loved sharing the birthday cake with him and enjoyed the ebb and flow of conversation while we painted and sculpted, not least because Bill told great stories about growing up in rural Clatskanie, Oregon, during the 1920s and 30s and about living in a beautiful Portland retirement community for the past ten years. In celebration of the stories you don’t expect to hear when doing portraits of combat veterans, I’ll relate a quick three.

The Mystery of the Squaw’s Black Hair

Bill told us all about an old woman he knew around town, a Native American named Ellen Mitchell (a rather un-squaw sounding name to my ears) who had lived longer than anyone around and still had jet black hair. “She was full-blooded Indian,” said Bill, “and there were rumors everywhere about how she kept her hair that way.” The town hairdresser denied helping her, claiming she never set foot in their establishment. And Ellen kept to herself, had nary a friend. So what was her secret, we asked. Witchcraft?

After Ellen died, the neighbor who settled her estate discovered her trick while sorting through her effects: hand prints in the chimney behind Ellen’s wood stove. She had been “dying” her hair with soot.

The Long Lost Throw

Bill had been working since age six, running alongside a milk delivery truck picking up and dropping off bottles. But his ambitions revolved around baseball, and as a teenager he happily found a way to combine that with a paycheck, letting the government subsidize his habit. In the late 1930s, he lied about his age to join the Army, lured not by the thrill of guns, guts, and glory, but by the promise from the local regiment that he would play catcher on their ball team.

Apparently Bill was a heck of a catcher. As we worked on his portrait, he told us in detail how he honed his ability throw fast and accurately over the pitcher’s mound to nail would-be base stealers at second base. He practiced all the time to refine his technique before the US entry into World War II put a stop to his focus on baseball. And he still laments the loss of that big throw thanks to a sniper who fired a bullet from the Leaning Tower of Pisa through his upper right arm during the 1945 Allied invasion of Italy. (See our previous post for more on that.)

The Dinner Harem

To hear Bill tell it, life in a retirement community sounds like the college dorm life he never had… female friends sneaking down the hall after hours to avoid spreading rumors about who’s sharing late-night wine with whom, along with the occasional intimate conversation, what Bill calls “playing house.”

Living with a lot of people their own age, and usually free of spouses, it seems Bill and his neighbors navigate the same social questions college students do, chief among them, “Who should I sit with in the dining room?”

Bill said he hangs out with five ladies who all live on the same floor as he does. He jokingly refers to them as “my harem.” After his wife died, Bill actually married one of those ladies from down the hall. He told us she was the most beautiful 80-year-old woman a person can imagine, and he treasured her offer to play house with him for a while. “We shared three good years before she died,” he said.

Chris and I met the ladies from the dinner harem during our evenings working with Bill. We usually started at 5:30pm, and worked on his portrait for three hours until the summer light left us, which kept Bill from his dinner routine. The ladies would come by to check up on us, curious about our progress on the portrait and ready to set Bill’s stories straight with their own points of view.

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.

From left, painter Paul X. Rutz and sculptor Christopher Wagner work on a portrait of Bill Keys at Keys’ Portland, Oregon residence. A former Army scout, Keys was twice wounded and earned the Silver Star in Italy during World War II.

 

This article gets its title from a film. In Uncommon Valor, a Marine goes back to Vietnam and Laos to rescue his son ten years after he went missing. The story celebrates a small, fictional group of courageous combatants doing the right thing even after everyone has long ago abandoned the larger mission (keeping the Vietnam domino from falling to Communism). Released in 1983, the movie helped popularize the POW/MIA issue, one of many loose ends hanging off the hem of that war.

This portrait project sometimes feels all about loose ends. Working since January with veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, my partner in portraiture, Christopher Wagner, and I have become used to talking through the complicated echoes of those wars, the PTSD and marriage troubles and annoying exchanges with doctors at VA hospitals.

So a couple months ago it came as a mild shock to run across someone whose story of heavy combat is the opposite of complicated, a man who doesn’t talk about his combat experience as a series of negotiations about how to do the right thing in a swirl of competing tactical, political or cultural necessities.

Ninety-year-old Bill Keys is a proud member of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, a man who lied about his age to get into the Army as a teen, and who helped liberate Italy from the grip of Fascism, earning a handful of medals along the way.

This man was shot by a sniper firing from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. No joke. Shot through the upper right arm. I measured the exit wound and painted an image of it. I measured the scars on his belly, too, from the incident that followed a few weeks later, in 1945.

Bill recovered from the Leaning Tower wound in time to rejoin his platoon in northern Italy and resume his duties as a scout, going around at all hours searching out German pill boxes and fox holes to give intelligence to his platoon on how best to defeat them. He snuck behind enemy lines with a partner, Herman, who spoke fluent German and somehow talked several Germans into surrendering.

On one of those excursions, a German machine gun nest got the better of Bill and Herman. Several rounds tore through Bill’s midsection, taking out his lower ribs, splitting open his belly, and dumping his intestines onto the ground. Herman hit the dirt and played possum while Bill rolled onto his back and used a handkerchief to wipe off his intestines, threading them back into his belly. As the German machine gunner lifted his weapon over the sand bags to change position, Bill (holding his belly closed with his left hand) used the toe of his right boot to steady his rifle muzzle. He shot the machine gunner between the shoulder blades and, when two other German soldiers poked their heads up to see where the shot came from, he killed each of them, too. One handed. Gut-shot and bleeding. Fifteen more Germans surrendered on the spot. Bill’s platoon came forward with stretchers, carrying him and Herman to safety. As soon as they made it to the triage area, Herman jumped off the stretcher with thanks to everyone for keeping him unscathed, while Bill underwent the first of many surgeries and the start of a two-year convalescence. He never saw Herman again.

I believe the story. I’ve read the citation that goes with Bill’s Silver Star, framed with other medals on the wall, and I’ve talked with a number of people who agree this act deserves another, bigger award. One reporter for the Oregonian is helping make Bill’s case for the Medal of Honor. All the right words are there: “ignoring his own wounds” and “singlehandedly” and “Nazis” and “liberated.”

The word “hero” never came up in our time working with Bill on his portrait. I’m sure he would have ducked the term, the way any honorable public servant would. Yet his story is so heroic, so good-versus-evil and so Rambo, were it part of a movie it would stretch even Hollywood’s cartoon limits of credibility. We’d have to cast a young John Wayne or Clint Eastwood and get Frank Capra to direct. We’d have to employ an orchestra with a big string section and audition an array of square-jawed men with short hair cuts to read solemn speeches about sacrifice for the country.

By contrast, when we work on the portraits of our Vietnam vets, to call their stories “complicated” is to barely scratch the surface. And so far, our conversations with Iraq and Afghan vets sound much more like our Vietnam era vets than like our representative of the World War II generation.

It’s easy to go too far and make sweeping generalizations from these encounters. We must remember the people who fought in World War II who came back with serious shell shock or who did things they’d rather forget, some never living down the crippling fear that caused them to freeze instead of firing their weapons, even to save their comrades. And of course Bill himself has simplified his story, long ago packing away any misgivings he had about his time in Italy.

Our cultural memory of World War II has allowed him to do so. In that war, men stormed beaches and hunted Nazis in the night. There were battle lines that moved in favor of the good guys, and it’s obvious who was the good guys. World War II was a sweet spot of maneuver warfare set between the entrenched attrition of the Great War and the hopelessly complicated anti-insurgencies that followed. Bill is the aging embodiment of that sweet spot, and that’s how we portrayed 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.