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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!

Blessed with great hearing and strong night vision, Army draftee Lance Grebner was often assigned duty on night watch for his company in the Vietnamese central highlands during his tour in 1968-69. His story about how he became a go-to guy on the starlight scope brought up some Naval and academic memories for me before it took a turn way beyond my field of vision—down a path not fit for sensitive readers.

We talk about everything from cooking excellent tamales to predictions on when the first people will land on Mars during our biweekly meetings to work on Lance’s portrait. (My partner in portraiture, Christopher Wagner, mentions some of the topics here.) We also chat through a free-association mix of politics, Oregon outdoor adventures, and details about our early adulthood, which for Chris are colored by his early plans to be a preacher. For Lance and me, those stories often have a military hue—mine the color of an aircraft carrier at sea, and his the color of long mountain marches.

Lance’s company spent much of the daylight combing the craggy mountains for signs of a massive tunnel system rumored to house an underground combat hospital for the North Vietnamese Army. At night the NVA and Viet Cong came out of the tunnels, which brought about a stealthy cat-and-mouse game of ambushes and counter-attacks. Much of the American company would spend the night roving around setting up ambushes in the brush. But with his good nighttime reputation, Lance didn’t have to do a lot of that. Instead he was able to enjoy setting aside his bulky M-60 machine gun to take his turn with a smaller rifle and a startlight scope, looking at the rustling nighttime through it: two hours on, two off, until dawn.

I’ve never seen the shadowy world through a 1960s-era startlight scope, but in my Naval aviation role a decade ago I saw through similar military equipment. As Lance spoke about lying in wait on a hill, panning back and forth while looking through that round scope, I remembered Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Starlight Scope Myopia.”

A well regarded poet of the Civil Rights era, Komunyakaa received a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam the same year (1969) that Lance earned his. It took Komunyakaa fourteen years to write about the war, finally publishing a book on it in the 1980s called Dien Cai Dau, which is Vietnamese for “crazy.” I know this thanks to background research related to my dissertation on combat art in Iraq. (Brian Turner, a rare breed who did a Master of Fine Arts in poetry before enlisting in the Army and serving in Iraq, has published some poems that make some Komunyak-esque moves.)

I told Lance about the poem with some enthusiasm, extolling what I take to be its effective meditation on the scope’s tendency to pull the shooter-viewer into this round, monochromatic world—a unique kind of near-sightedness. Komunyakaa closes “Starlight Scope Myopia” this way, refining—I said with scholarly authority—the distance between shooter and target:

One of them is laughing.

You want to place a finger


to his lips & say “shhhh.”

You try reading ghost-talk


on their lips. They say

“up-up we go,” lifting as one.

This one, old, bowlegged,


you feel you could reach out

& take him into your arms. You


peer down the sights of your M-16

seeing the full moon

loaded on an oxcart.

The poem ends like that, with this strangely beautiful image of the moon on an ox cart. We pause on the shadowy, quiet, mystical scene available through spotting scopes and explore how the sight of moving mouths can mingle with a viewer’s imagination and other night sounds into the illusion that we can hear the far-off people speaking. And Komunyakaa’s “you” adds an important, menacing layer. With “you,” he leads readers to imagine ourselves in the role of shooter instead of him. The power inherent in a rifle with night scope becomes yours. You think you know the men represented in this monochrome, shadowy text. You feel you can embrace them, and you can kill them.

I made sure to give Lance a copy of the poem in an anthology, hoping for more opportunities to talk about the optical strangeness in those situations. I’m a painter. I think about these things all the time. What I don’t think about much—and here’s an example of my own myopic view of combat scopes and luminance—is the memories someone like Lance must have entwined with those of the full moon apparently loaded onto an oxcart. They aren’t pleasant memories.

Lance earned his reputation for good starlight scoping this way: One night, on watch with his platoon sergeant, Lance whispered that he saw a figure appear in the scope, and then he started counting… 2, 3, 4, 5. “When I got to 8,” he told me, “I said, holy sh** there’s a company of NVA down there. I saw a mortar tube. It was very scary.” He said it turned out there were 200 troops on their way to take out another American company that the North Vietnamese had located earlier.

So Lance and his sergeant immediately sent word to their company to wake everyone up. He said within a minute they lit up those ghostly shapes with everything they had. Lance set aside the M-16 with the starlight scope and picked up his usual M-60 machine gun. The barrel got so hot he worried it might melt.

In the morning they found no bodies and no weapons among the helmets and other equipment scattered around. The North Vietnamese rarely left any men or weapons behind. “And there were a lot of blood trails,” he said. But later, following those blood trails, the company found several shallow graves. The NVA often would put maps or other sensitive intelligence material under a rotting body to keep anyone from discovering it, guessing that pure revulsion would keep people away from valuable intel. “But we had orders,” Lance said. They turned over those bodies—careful to avoid any booby traps—and searched the whole scene thoroughly.

One grave appeared unusual. The man’s body was buried with some formality, in a wooden box instead of a simple hole in the ground. The Americans suspected the man must have been some kind of high ranking official. Opening the box revealed something big, yet not quite what they expected. It was obvious the man had still been alive when he was buried, Lance said. The tips of the fingers had rubbed away from scratching at the coffin’s insides, and the man’s face was still twisted in what looked like a ghastly scream.

Conversations like this one give me some glimpse at the narrow scope I’m looking through almost all the time. I hope talking about it 45 years later somehow helps Mr. Grebner, too.

“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 portraits 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

The overall goal of my art, putting aside all elaborate artist statements, is to find a point of resonation between myself and the viewer. I want to create an object that speaks on some intrinsic level to me and hoping that it will do the same with other members of humanity. Usually for me this is a very private enterprise, working alone in the studio allowing my hands to create what they will, not knowing whether anyone else will ever respond to what I am creating.

With this body of work, since I have the subject of my sculpting sitting right in front of me, I feel a resonation immediately, the type of resonation that comes from being able to set down with someone and have a conversation over the course of hours. Granted, our models have committed to having their portraits made and might be obliged to pose for us, hours on end, but while we are working and talking I feel that the relationship is not forced. With all the models we have worked with thus far the points of relation are strong enough that I would feel completely natural setting and talking with all pretenses aside.

It is very rewarding to be able to talk about music, movies, and Bigfoot with people who have had very different life experiences from myself but still have such similar points of interest. I suppose this isn’t abnormal for people to find connections when they set down and actually communicate with one another. After all, that is partially what this project is about. But it doesn’t change how rewarding those experiences can be.

So far we have been working with four models: three recent Veterans and one who served during the Vietnam War. Subjects for conversations have included Tom Waits (how horrible or wonderful he might be), Viet Cong tunnels, dating definitions, helicopter rides, Mars colonization, and Scottish poetry. Perhaps I will elaborate on some of these topics in weeks to come. For now I’ll leave you with a Tom Waits quote which may or may not relate to anything but I like it.

“My reality needs imagination like a bulb needs a socket. My imagination needs reality like a blind man needs a cane.”

As she climbed on and off the bicycle we’re using as a prop, one of our current veteran/models recalled her memories of work days during deployment in Iraq. It became a story not of two scenes, but of two views—two ways of seeing.

Working in human resources as an Army enlistee, she worked at a desk in a trailer in Baghdad with a view of Saddam’s palace, the ornate decorations gleaming. Through the window she and her coworkers used to watch ducks in the river, diving under the water, flapping their big wings to dry them, swimming under bridges that wouldn’t be out of place at Oxford or Cambridge. As she told me about the scene, I imagined British students punting along the river—lazy, hot and luxurious. She recalled running around one of Saddam’s son’s palaces as she trained for a marathon with Mika blaring in her earphones, “Big girl, you are beautiful!” (YouTube your way to her fabulous marathon training soundtrack here.)

With some regularity, though, she got a major change of view—if not a change of scenery. As mortar shells started dropping, each soldier in the compound had a choice to make: “You can run to a bunker, or you can stay in your office until it’s over. I know people who would run to the bunker. I would just stay and wait,” she said. The attack would last for six rounds or so, and then before the Americans could call in an aircraft to drop a bomb, the insurgents would pack up and leave. I asked her what she would do, hiding out in the office, to take cover. She looked at me, “Why get under the desk? If that round comes close, your desk won’t help you.”

The first time an attack happened, she said she was watching a movie with a coworker and felt nothing but curiosity while the alarm sounded, bonging away with a computerized voice reminding everyone to take cover. She explained how the emotional impact came on slowly, which I thought made sense—the ebbing of shock and the flow of a first narrative about what happened. But that’s not what she meant. With each attack, she said, that emotional heft came on quicker and with more strength. She felt pressed upon by the law of averages, especially after a friend got killed in his office.

The view out the trailer window, with all the details the same, shifted immeasurably with each attack. And then she went back to work, watching the ducks and making sure everyone got paid.

“Between Here and There: Portraits of Veterans” is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher 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.