It’s the second week of April. A few days earlier, James Pollack was discussing his experience in Vietnam with some other former combat artists, on a panel hosted at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
A video of the discussion is available on YouTube.
Now back home in Pierre, he’s sitting with the Capital Journal at a table strewn with printouts of some paintings he did in Vietnam as a member of Combat Art Team IV in August of 1967.
His assignment back then was to be an artist at all times. “It’s probably the only time in my life even to this day where I was an artist for 24 hours a day,” he says. The job was to document the war with four other soldier artists on his team – Samuel Alexander, Daniel Lopez, Burdell Moody, and Ronald Wilson. Three teams did 60-day turns before Pollock’s. Five teams followed.
A small bound set of pages is visible in Pollack’s right front shirt pocket. Is that the sketchbook he still carries with him most everywhere, even if nowadays he’s not an artist at every moment? No. That’s a journal.
But Pollock fishes his sketchbook out of the left inside pocket of his jacket. It’s stored a plastic bag, a practice he adopted in Vietnam. Here’s his account of learning the habit, which he included in a 2009 essay:
“I had never made a tent with a poncho. It took a while, but I finally got the stakes and poncho arranged in such a manner I could get under it. I was proud of how it turned out, and was sure it was going to be comfortable while protecting me the rain. It started to pour, and it wasn’t long before I realized I had a problem, water was gushing along the ground into my tent. Gonzales started laughing and said ‘you didn’t dig a trench around your tent. You need a trench to drain the water away.’ I dug a trench. It worked, and the rain continued. By morning the rain stopped but everything I had was soaked. From this experience I learned to carry my sketchbooks in plastic bags.”
Pollock offers the very dry sketchbook for perusal, but says, “There’s nothing new from today in there.” Some of the pages are images drawn with a Rapidograph refillable India ink pen. Others are in watercolor. A quick flip through the sketchbook reveals mostly landscapes, not people.
So they’re unlike the printouts of his combat art lying on the table in front of him, which are populated with any number of human figures. In a painting called “Looking Down the Trail,” one of the figures is nearly hidden in the background. He points it out: “There. It’s a figure that I put in back there.”
But a Vietnam veteran who looked at the painting saw more figures there than Pollock thought he had painted. “He saw wounded soldiers and things, so he was he projecting things that happened to him into that picture,” Pollack says.
As subjective as a person’s reaction to a painting can be, it’s the subjectivity of artists themselves that probably accounts for the U.S. Army’s desire to have them help document the war.
Dated July 20, 1967, the circular defining the combat artist program highlights an applicant’s ability to create an emotional effect, not just technical proficiency, as one of the selection criteria: “Applicants must be competent artist-illustrators who have a sound foundation in life drawing, composition, and color. They must be able to record military events and experiences pictorially and with strong emotional impact. Their work must meet professional standards of craftsmanship and originality and be appropriate for inclusion in the annals of military history. Copy work will not be accepted for qualification.”
And as Pollock talks about the images he created as a combat artist in Vietnam, it comes into even sharper focus why the army wanted painters, not just photographers, film crews and writers, to help record the war for future generations. The army wanted to document more than just the objective reality of a single moment of combat.
The panel discussion touched on the topic, when moderator Charles Grow asked, “Why do we need combat art, especially in a time with cameras?” Here’s how Pollock responded: “Well, it’s different than a writer, a poet, or a photographer, it’s just another window into the history of a war.”
Back in Pierre, Pollock is willing to revisit the topic, but it’s clear it’s a well-worn theme:
“The question always comes up and I don’t understand why it does. It is just another tool. It could be photography or art or anything like that, just another way – it’s as simple as that. The photography, I think, is a snapshot of time, of what is in front of you. And art is probably a snapshot of what is going on emotionally. You can extend your emotions. With photography the moment is there, and if you don’t get it, you’re not going to get it. But an artist can go in there, and if he misses the cue, he still experienced it, and he can come back to it, and come up with some kind of expression. Whereas a photographer, if he misses his cue, he is out of luck, he’s just got to go on to the next whatever he’s doing.”
Later he adds, “It’s not rocket science to say that photography is different than painting, and poetry, and that’s the way it is. I don’t think one replaces the other.”
The idea of one not replacing the other is illustrated by Pollock’s own experience. His paintings made in Vietnam don’t replace the photos he took there. He carried two cameras when he was working as a combat artist in Vietnam, his own 35mm camera and the Kodak Instamatic issued by the army.
Even if he didn’t use the photographs to inform his paintings – the film couldn’t be developed quickly enough for that – he sometimes includes his photos when he gives presentations about his work as a combat artist in Vietnam.
Some of the panelists in D.C. joked about the need to sketch quickly, to capture the action unfolding in front of them – if a guy fell out of a two-story building, the sketch should be done before he hit the ground.
But as Pollock describes his work, it’s clear that much of it – even the quick sketches done in the field – weren’t necessarily attempts to depict a scene he saw in front of him: “Oh, I was pretty quiet about my sketching, I was off by myself or whatever, or doing it from memory, that way.”
The way Pollock describes them, his sketches were more of a memory aid than a precursor to a finished work: “My sketches were very sketchy! ... with a few squiggles of a line, I could come back to the studio and say, yeah, I remember that! And then do final piece from that.”
One of Pollock’s favorite works that he painted as a combat artist is called “Lonesome” – which depicts a soldier sitting, leaning forward, with downward gaze, arms resting on his thighs, hands between his knees.
Asked if the figure corresponds to an actual individual soldier he captured in a sketch from life as the soldier was sitting in front of him, Pollock says: “Oh, I don’t know, probably not. It was a feeling that I caught. I don’t think it was any individual soldier; it represented all these soldiers who had to go out in the field and come back and feel this way.”
About “Lonesome” Pollock previously wrote: “Being overseas, away from family, friends and familiar places by itself can be emotionally draining on any soldier. Throw into that mix having to go out on a patrol where danger and all kinds of physical hardships have to be endured. I did this painting as a result of my visit with 199th LIB in Vietnam. I tried to capture the emotional drain war can have on an individual. How after coming back from patrol a soldier can be emotionally and physically exhausted.”
The mixed media nature of “Lonesome” also embodies a sort of obvious point of agreement among the panelists in D.C. – that one of the differences between photography and painting or drawing has to do with the “machinery” used to create the images. Any camera records images using the same kind of physics. But the tools chosen by artists – pencil, pen, watercolor, oil, batik, among others – offer more physical options for recording an image onto a flat surface.
In the hand of one artist, the effect of a tool will be different from the effect of the same tool wielded by a different artist. And that’s certainly true when the tool is the literal hand of the artist. In places, it’s apparent that “Lonesome” is the result of Pollock’s direct expression. “Some of the paint was laid down and swiped away with my bare fingers,” he says.
This weekend, Pollock will be headed out for another public presentation about combat art in Vietnam, this time a little closer to home. He’s a presenter at the 50th Annual Dakota Conference at Augustana University, which this year has the theme: Korea And Vietnam: 25 Years of War in Asia, 1950-1975.