WASHINGTON, September 25 – When US Marine Chief Warrant Officer Mike Fay was on patrol with his unit in Iraq, he was armed with an M-16 rifle, a nine-millimeter pistol — and a sketchbook, watercolors and cameras.
"I’m a combat artist which means my job is to go out with my fellow Marines to combat," Fay said at the opening in Washington of "Afghanistan and Iraq: Combat Art", a collection of works by himself and three other US military artists.
"We’re not only artists — we have weapons, too," he said.
Fay has done two tours each in Afghanistan and Iraq. His fellow Marine combat artist, Sergeant Kristopher Battles, has served twice in Iraq.
"Every artist has that Bohemian angst, that struggle. That’s immediately provided to us," said Battles.
"When we go out in the field we take sketchbooks with us, and I take a watercolor kit and a couple of cameras," said Fay.
"Because when you’re in a serious patrol area and you get in a firefight, you have to put on your Marine hat and do what you need to do, but you also click pictures," he added.
"You can’t have your fellow Marines worrying if the artist guy is lost in a reverie."
Photographs taken in the heat of a firefight are turned into more involved pieces on return to the forward operating base, with bigger, more elaborate works crafted on the artist-soldiers’ return to the United States.
One of Fay’s works, a gouache called "Two hands", evolved from a photograph he took after a morning raid in a village near Hillah, in central Iraq.
"Originally, the subject matter was these two guys here: this Marine, with his back to us, who was born in Egypt and spoke fluent Arabic, and this Iraqi. They’re standing very close, talking and gesticulating," Fay said.
But the name of the painting came from the other Marine in the picture, who is intently watching his colleague and the Iraqi as they talk, his right hand resting on the trigger of his rifle in almost the exact same position as the hand of an elderly Iraqi, to the left of the group, holding prayer beads.
"I remember his prayer beads were just flying through his fingers," Fay said.
— The picture took on a life of its own —
"The picture took on a life of its own as I painted it. I named it at the very end when I noticed the two hands," he said.
"Two hands" and other works of combat art illustrate the "constant ebb and flow between violence and peacefulness" that characterizes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Fay.
"People are very friendly and five minutes later, they’re shooting at you. The landscape is beautiful — but it’s mined," he said.
Although combat art has existed since soldiers have gone into battle, today’s artists capture more than just war.
"Since World War II, they’ve documented what Marines do on and off the battlefield," Linn Ezell, director of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, said at the opening of the exhibition.
"We try to show the humanity of what it means to be a Marine," Battles told AFP.
"We’re with the Marines and we paint. We don’t do poster art," he said.
The works of Battles, Fay, and Navy artists Monica Perin and Morgan Ian Wilbur — the only four combat artists in the Marines and the Navy — are on display until February 28 at the Navy Museum in southeast Washington.
Their works capture the grief of separation, the pride of wounded warriors, the timelessness of an early-morning reveille at a forward operating base.
"You hear the muffled voices, the creaking of gear. That could be 3,000 years ago, Roman Legionnaires in the wilds of Gaul, just getting up and getting on the march," said Fay.
"You hear the scuffling of shoes and see the dust rising from feet, guys leaned over onto the gear. They’ve got that foggy morning look, lost in their thoughts. Time sort of suspends itself. And as artists, we get to wax poetic about that," he said.
"It’s not that the other men and women, officer and enlisted, don’t see the beauty of a sunrise or find themselves looking at a common kingfisher with unbelievable colors hovering over a pond, but we get to articulate it," he added.
"Ours is a job like no other," said Perin, who painted portraits of American soldiers as they waited in Cyprus to ship out to combat in Iraq.
Combat art is rough-hewn and honest like combat fatigues, not pressed and polished like a dress uniform.
"Having sweat or dirt on a picture is OK because they are the marks of battle," said Fay.
"We don’t try to disguise that because not only are we creating artwork, but we’re creating artefacts," he said.