Drawing In A Warzone
For most of the last ten years Michael Fay was an official war artist for the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. A war artist, in case you don’t know, is someone who heads to combat zones to draw what he sees there, which seems both incredibly dangerous and a potent counterargument to anyone who still thinks that artists are wimps.Michael has been in and out of the Marine Corps numerous times over the past few decades. He first joined in 1975 before going to art school, and then again in 1982 after receiving his degree. In 2000, he became an official war artist. His drawings and paintings of Marines in the middle of combat have an old-fashioned feel about them, which lend the images a macabre romanticism that you can’t get from war photography.
Michael is also the guy behind the Joe Bonham project, which encourages artists to illustrate wounded veterans in hospitals and should remind you that holy shit, there are a bunch of wars going on and people are getting their legs shot off.
VICE: Let’s start with the basics: What is a war artist?
Michael Fay: A war artist is simply an artist who goes to war. People understand landscape painters and portrait artists, but they have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that there are still artists who go to war to make art. In the past, a lot of artists went to war. Manet did it in the French commune during the Franco-Prussian war; Goya witnessed what the French did in the Napoleonic Wars in Spain; John Singer Sargent went to WWI on behalf of the British. Many well-known American artists went off and directly or indirectly did art during WWI, and especially during WWII. All the service branches had big combat art programs right up until the end of Vietnam. Pretty much anyone who has taken Art History 101 knows that the basis for most art is war – whether it was the Romans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, or many others.
Why has war art in the US declined since Vietnam?
You know, I don’t know. A lot of cultural institutions, whether it’s universities or museums, are just waking up to the fact that here we are ten years into this, our longest war, and the culture has essentially sat it out. That is why I, and some of my friends in the Society of War Artists, are trying to make it more public.
Your drawings of wounded Marines are definitely powerful enough to make the costs of war public.
The first time you ever go sketch a guy missing a major part of his face or body you think to yourself, “How am I going to respond to this?” But once you’re with these guys you realise, “This is not an image. This is a real person.” The light is still in their eyes. They are still in the fight. They’re completely alive and engaged. You can’t help but leave the room and think these people are more alive than most of us. These are people doing real stuff. They’re not taking life for granted. They’re taking what they have and using it fully. Some of these guys have only two stubs, but they’ll use those two stubs in ways that will blow your mind.
How do the wounded servicemen react when they see your portraits of them?
Universally, they’re like, “Hey, have at it, I’m glad you’re here.” They’re not going to hide. They’re way past being put off by stuff the rest of us are put off by. These people are exceptional, and part of that exceptionality is that they don’t see themselves that way. These are guys who are 23, maybe 25. In our culture, we don’t see people in their 30s as adults. How did we get to the point where we are calling people in their 20s kids? My generation fought to be able to vote at 18. It was like, “We’re going to war, let us vote.” This generation hasn’t stepped up to the plate and no one has made them step up.
After ten years of war, are the Marines getting tired of fighting?
Oh, no. Guys in the fight are in it. That is part of developing this warrior culture. People who go into the service now – they know they’re going to fight. It doesn’t matter if you’re National Guard or regular Marines, you’re gonna go. And you’re gonna go more than once. Within the tribe of the military, even with all the wounds and PTSD and everything else, the morale is unbelievably high.