Most days in the open air, James Pollock uses a sketchbook, a Ninji waterbrush and a couple of Rotring pens – one loaded with ink as black as earth, another with walnut ink the color of wood. The ink is water-soluble and he uses the waterbrush to create washes from light to dark in his sketches of trees and bluffs along Lake Sharpe.
It’s the best he can do to try to capture the way the land is, short of tossing dirt against a canvas. He tried that, too, one time, but it didn’t work out.
In the Army everyone’s a critic.
James Pollock of Pierre is what’s called a plein air artist – one who prefers to paint on location outside – and he’s been one since at least eighth grade.
“I grew up in a town called Pollock, which is in north central South Dakota. It was named after my great grandfather – the railroad named it. He was a lay preacher and knew most of the people who lived in the area. Most likely he was a key person in helping the railroad obtain the necessary rights-of-way,” Pollock said.
“I always wanted to be an artist. Matter of fact, I have a painting that I did when I was 3 years old. It’s called ‘God in a storm.’ Somebody saved it and I had it framed up a few years ago.”
He’s quick to say it’s nothing exceptional – the same sort of thing any 3-year-old would draw. But Pollock never stopped drawing.
“Pollock High School’s where I went to school, and there was no art program at all, so I would read about artists in encyclopedias and wherever I could get a book about art. My folks gave me an oil painting set when I was in the eighth grade. That’s kind of when I got interested in going outdoors and painting – I used to take that oil paint set and go outside.”
The outdoor setting was good training for college, where he first learned to use one of the tools he loves – watercolors.
“I went to South Dakota State University and I was an art major. Most of the classes would actually require you to go take a sketchbook and do sketches daily, so I was able to do it with watercolor and sometimes pencil and sometimes pen and ink. I think that’s a good way for any artist that wants to start out, to keep a sketchbook, just like it’s a good idea for a writer to keep a journal.”
Move to the top of the list
He finished at South Dakota State University when reports from the Vietnam War were blaring across the network news each evening. He started looking for work.
“Seemed like whenever I’d go in for a job interview, one of the questions they’d ask you is whether you’d been in the service or not. At that time they were drafting very heavily and no one wanted to hire someone who potentially was going to be drafted. So finally I went down to the Draft Board. I didn’t want to enlist, because that was three years. I just said, ‘You can put me at the top of the list and I’ll just get this over with, if you want to do that.’ They were happy to do that because a lot of guys wanted to be at the bottom of the list.”
He was drafted, went for basic at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., then for advanced training at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., to learn to be a postal worker for the military. The expectation was that more than 90 percent of the people who graduated from army postal school would end up overseas.
“I put down that I wanted to go to Europe. I suppose every else did, too. When they posted where we were going to be going, I can remember very clearly sheets were posted with different countries on them. I was hoping mine wasn’t going to be Vietnam, and it wasn’t – I was going to be going to Korea. That was fine with me. I was shipped over to Korea.”
He was assigned to a small post office in a place called Camp Ames.
“At the time I never knew what the function of that base was. It was kind of a secretive deal. It was kind of like in a mountain. Since then the base has been closed, but I found out what they actually kept in those guarded mountains was nuclear warheads. They had guard dogs and every once in a while a train would come and they’d unload these big long things they’d haul in with trucks. Of course now I can see that they were nuclear devices but at the time we didn’t know what they were. They would have the German Shepherd guard dogs follow them from the train station to their final destination.”
Vietnam was a safe distance away from Korea and Camp Ames should have been a quiet assignment; but something happened. A man named Sgt. Brooks came to the window of the post office one day with a copy of the Stars and Stripes.
“I know you’re an artist,’ he says, ‘you might be interested in this,’” Pollock recalled. “And he laid out this article out of the Stars and Stripes telling how the Army was looking for soldier artists for a program they called the U. S. Army Vietnam Combat Art Program. With this program the army would send artists over to Vietnam – actually teams of artists.”
Probably some soldiers wouldn’t have understood what the program was about, but Pollock was an art student from South Dakota State University.
“SDSU was home to many Harvey Dunn paintings. Dunn is a native of South Dakota and was a war artist in World War I. When I was at SDSU – that was before the South Dakota Art Museum was built – Dunn’s paintings were housed in the Student Union. And a lot of times, when I was there to study, I spent more time looking at his paintings than studying. Several paintings hanging on the walls were war pictures. Of course they were illustrations that he did for magazines, because the war art that he actually did for the Army is in the Smithsonian.
“So when I heard this thing about the Army looking for soldier artists to go to Vietnam, I understood the program’s historical significance and I jumped on the opportunity to do this, even though I really didn’t want to go to Vietnam. It was one of those deals where I was willing to take the risk because of the historical importance of this soldier art program.”
It wasn’t long before Pollock received a letter saying he’d been selected to participate as one of five artists on Combat Art Team IV, or CAT IV, set to travel to Vietnam in August 1967. During the course of the Vietnam war there were a total of nine art teams that operated in Vietnam. Typically, each team consisted of five soldier artists who spent 60 days of temporary duty in Vietnam gathering information and making preliminary sketches of U.S. Army related activities. The teams then transferred to Hawaii for an additional 75 days to finish their work.
“While in Vietnam we traveled with all kinds of units. We would go out in the field with them, traveling with them wherever they went and doing whatever the unit was doing. But we would only go out for two or three days at a time, and then we’d go back to our home base and pick another unit to visit, I traveled with a lot of different kinds of units,” says Pollock.
He was with the First Infantry, and also the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 11th Cavalry, the 199th Light Infantry – quite a number of units, if he were to list them all.
The first time he went out into the field was with the 196th at Chulai.
“First I went up with a radio observer recon operation. Myself and two radio officers sat on the floor of the Huey, peering out the open door, getting a lay of the land where we would be going in the next few days. After the recon flight I flew out into the jungle in a resupply helicopter with a Public Information Officer, or PIO, to a platoon that was on patrol. When we landed, I jumped out and I was up to my knees in rice paddie mud. The helicopter blades were still rotating, air was swirling around me as I jumped out of the craft. The lieutenant in charge of the platoon came up to me and shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome to our unit, you must be the PIO guys.’
“Where we landed was some distance from where the platoon had their base camp set up. The unit didn’t want the enemies, if there were any in the area, to know their exact location. We hiked through the jungle and rice paddies from this landing zone to where the base camp was.”
They arrived at the base camp to find the soldiers holding 16 children inside a perimeter. The soldiers had found them in the area and didn’t dare to let them go until the platoon was ready to move on.
“They were guarding them,” Pollock said. “The unit was concerned that these kids would tell the unit’s camp location and expose the platoon to ambush.
“You hear about atrocities in Vietnam, how kids were mistreated – not this group of kids, they were treated very well. The foot soldiers gave them goodies from their rations and the kids actually looked like they were having a good time. And then, in the morning the kids were let go.”
That was one of Pollock’s first lessons about the complexities of life in the field for American troops in Vietnam. The next lesson came soon after.
“That night it rained. I used a poncho to build a tent. I thought it looked pretty good when I was done constructing it. This was the first time I had ever made a tent out of a poncho. At postal school they didn’t give me any training about makeshift tents. I got under my new built home as it started raining. Pretty soon all the water was coming right through my tent. The guys in the unit all started laughing. I said, ‘Well, what’s the deal?’ They said, ‘You didn’t build a trench around it so it can drain the water away from the inside of the tent.’ So I got all soaking wet.
“And then the next few days we tramped around in the jungle. I’m not sure what the unit was doing. They called a lot of these field trips ‘search-and-destroy operations.’ They were looking for signs of enemy bases, weapons caches and things like that. I suspect that’s what they were trying to do.
“When it was time for me to leave I would hop on another supply helicopter and I would be gone. I always felt bad because I could visit for a day or two or three and then leave. These guys might be tramping around in the jungle for days and sometimes weeks at a time. I have the greatest respect for the soldiers that spent their full tour in Vietnam in the field. It was hot, there were bugs, leaches, you name it. Danger was always present. There could be a booby trap, an ambush. I have the greatest respect for the foot soldiers and the challenges they faced every day in Vietnam.”
Piece of Vietnam
His own role was different.
“I kind of saw myself as a reporter rather than a soldier,” Pollock said. “One painting I did never came back. I used acrylics and I grabbed some dirt and sand from the ground in Vietnam and I combined them together and made a painting.”
It was roughly done, but so was Vietnam; and that piece of art had the very earth and grit of Vietnam in it. But the painting disappeared while Pollock was out in the field.
“There was a lieutenant that was assigned to us, somehow he saw that painting and while I was gone, he took it and threw it in the trash. Well, when I come back, Sam Alexander, a friend and artist on our team, says, ‘The lieutenant threw your painting away.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not supposed to do that. The Army wanted everything that we do.’ Sam said, ‘Well, he trashed it.’”
Pollock never learned what happened to the painting. There was a CIA bunker close to the trash barrel where the lieutenant had thrown away the painting. One of the things Pollock heard is that a CIA employee was seen taking the painting from the trash.
All these years later, Pollock still thinks about that one rough painting.
“I just thought it would be a different and appropriate to bring back a piece of Vietnam in a painting. The earth over there was a little bit different color than it is in South Dakota. Maybe some of the Southern states have a little bit of the coloration that Vietnam soil has. I just thought bringing a part of Vietnam physically back in the painting would be interesting. Someone could look at it and say: ‘Well, there’s actually a piece of Vietnam in that piece of art, maybe I walked on that ground.’ But it didn’t happen.”
War and peace
For a period of years after Vietnam, Pollock made a name for himself selling prints that were different in style from the work he does now.
“I’ve always dropped back to painting outdoors and on location. But during that period of time, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I had a series of prints that I sold at shows, by mail order and through Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug. They were silhouettes with red suns in them. People kind of got me tagged with that type of art just because those prints were so widespread. I sold thousands of those prints,” he said.
The common denominator with what he does now is that same attention to the land. He’s still trying to put the essence of that into his paintings and drawings.
“I’ve grown up in South Dakota. I’m part of the land, I think. Sometimes I think our friends and neighbors in the cities don’t have a full understanding of the land and its importance to humans’ existence. Nature is a great teacher.
“My goal when I go out painting is not to create a perfect rendition of what’s in front of me. What I try to do is express the general feel I have for the locality I’m painting.
“One of the primary things to pay attention to when painting on location is how to simplify. In nature there’s so much detail that you can’t possibly include every detail in a painting. I like to say you have to actually see less than what’s there.
“Painting from nature is challenging. You’ve got the weather, you’ve got the time of day – the sun keeps moving and shadows change. That’s another reason I like to use watercolor. You can work fast. It suits my style of painting when working outdoors.”
Among Pollock’s favorite painters are the influential British 19th century landscape painter and watercolorist, J.M.W. Turner, and a more recent British watercolorist, Trevor Chamberlain.
“Turner’s a favorite of mine. Turner was really the first modern artist to come along. He set the stage and opened the modern art door for everybody, I think.”
Though he paints many locations – one of his watercolor paintings of the Little Moreau State Recreation Area was included in a show this past fall at the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Neb. – Pollock says he does have his favorite locations.
“There is something I paint again and again, and that’s Lake Sharpe. I like to go along the edge of the lake or on the bike trail. The breaks, the trees, looking across to the opposite shore, you can find those areas in many of my sketchbooks.”
His advice for young painters? Try to get at the thing behind the landscape.
“For instance if it’s a frosty day, you might want to try to get a frosty feel to your painting. Or if it’s raining out, you want to get the feel of that rain. You don’t necessarily have to get the trees in the right place. Try to get the feeling of the time of day and the weather conditions.
“When I’m painting on location I’ll exaggerate things a lot. I’ll exaggerate colors, maybe, or change colors, or exaggerate the weather conditions that are out there.
“By doing that you can create a focal point by exaggerating atmospheric conditions. Let the distance become less detailed and then bring some detail into one particular thing, maybe a tree or a person, something like that.
Color is a great tool for translating into other terms what the landscape is saying, Pollock said. But he notes that the values in a painting – the degrees of lightness and darkness – may be even more important. And the painter’s art and craft is to make it all come together.
“I really like to paint toward evening, toward dusk. The values are fully defined and the colors that come out in my painting often are exaggerations of colors that I’m seeing,” he said. “You can choose colors and they don’t have to be what you see in front of you as long as they go together. As a matter of fact, sometimes you create an interest that might not otherwise be there by using some colors that go contrary to what nature’s showing you.
“When you’re outdoors and painting landscapes, to get your values right, I think, is probably one of the most important things an artist can do.”
And if you can get the grit and color of the land into your painting, all the better.