Marine Combat Artist
Keeps Tradition Alive
By MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS
February 21, 2006; Page B1
RAMADI, Iraq -- On the rooftop of the combat base here, Michael Fay sat with his sketchbook on his lap, admiring the gentle sweep of camouflage netting and the textured interplay of stacked sandbags in the winter sunlight.
He was happily penciling in the first few strokes when his idyll was interrupted by Cpl. Steven Varao, the Marine in charge of security on the roof. "Hey, sir, I don't think that's a very good position," the corporal advised him. "We get mortared out here."
Reluctantly, Warrant Officer 1 Fay, the Marine Corps' official combat artist, folded his wood and leather painter's stool, picked up his rifle and began heading for cover -- until he got distracted by the striped pattern dripping black tar had made on the gray concrete roof.
In 'All Eyes Down,' Fay depicts Marines trudging across a field in Afghanistan, looking for mines.
"Ever heard of a French painter named Dubuffet?" he asked, referring to Jean Dubuffet. "These images remind me of him -- primitive, almost abstract."
Cpl. Varao thought about that for a moment. "You guys like sunsets?" he asked. "We get nice ones from Post Charlie."
Such is the avant-garde life of Warrant Officer Fay. While other countries, such as Australia and Britain, send civilian painters to bring home their interpretations of war, Warrant Officer Fay is a rarity because he is both front-line warrior and front-line artist. He is, as far as he knows, the only active-duty combat artist in the world today.
"If you're engaged as a landscape artist, you're expected to go look at landscapes," he says. "If you're a still-life artist, you're expected to set up a Cezanne-like setting, perhaps with some interesting fabric, some peaches and a skull or two. A combat artist is expected to go into combat."
The result is work that does in images what Ernie Pyle did in his World War II newspaper columns: Convey the experiences, both frightening and mundane, of the common man thrust into war.
There is a pencil portrait of Lance Cpl. Nicholas G. Ciccone, tired after a long patrol, still suffering from helmet hair. "All Eyes Down," is an oil painting of Marines trudging across a field in Afghanistan, watching for landmines with each step. One of the men is heading out of the picture, a Degas touch that Warrant Officer Fay favors. Columns of smoke rise from barrel fires in "Some Things Never Change"; any infantryman will recognize they're burning the waste from the plywood outhouses.
"What is more elemental, what is more connected to the complete flow of history, than this?" Warrant Officer Fay asks, sitting in the gloom of Observation Post Horea, a Stalingradesque ruin in the center of Ramadi, where Marines and Iraqi soldiers face frequent rocket and mortar attacks.
Warrant Officer Michael Fay, in Ramadi, Iraq, draws inspiration from Ernie Pyle -- and Vermeer.
Christopher B. Crosman, the former director of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, compared Warrant Officer Fay's approach to that of Winslow Homer, who painted scenes of camp life during the Civil War. "Fay puts a human face on war," Mr. Crosman wrote in the catalog for an exhibit of his paintings and drawings that the museum put on last year.
Britain began putting artistic soldiers to work in World War I, and the practice soon caught on in the U.S. The Pentagon sent close to 70 combat artists to depict the Vietnam War, according to Warrant Officer Fay. The Marine Corps Combat Art program began in 1942 and is now part of the History and Museums Division of the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va., which owns everything the artist produces. The practice has faded in the Army and other services, but the Corps remains uniquely obsessed with its own history and image. Its art collection holds more than 7,500 pieces, a tally that grows every day Warrant Officer Fay puts pencil to paper or brush to linen.
"I prefer to think of myself as the keeper of the flame, rather than just as the last unicorn," he says.
A few antiwar demonstrators peacefully protested his Farnsworth exhibit; he ran into them when he arrived for the opening in his dark green dress uniform. But in the view of the museum's Mr. Crosman, up-close military painting remains a social necessity even in a world of live television coverage and embedded news photographers. "Because satellite television has the capability to transmit to us on a daily basis galvanizing and unsettling images of the death and destruction of war, it is profoundly affecting and, in a way, reassuring to see individual interpretations by combat artists like Michael Fay," Mr. Crosman wrote.
A 52-year-old who wears a toothy smile, a salt-and-pepper moustache and a fleece cap with a Bohemian floppiness, Warrant Officer Fay grew up in Allentown, Pa. He snagged an art scholarship, but, as a self-described "hippie kid" in the 1960s, flailed in the confines of academia. In 1975 he dropped out of his third art school and enlisted in the Marines, "the world's finest finishing school for young men," as he calls it.
After serving as a mortarman, he left the Corps and finally got his degree in art education from Penn State University. But the pull of the military was strong, and the job market weak, so he soon returned to the Marines, this time repairing helicopter electronics in Desert Storm and in operations in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, all the while doing art on the side.
With a daughter in grade school and the military shrinking, he left active duty in 1993 and kicked around Fredericksburg, Va., selling insurance, teaching school, restoring old homes and making furniture out of hickory twigs. Four years later, he met the then-Marine Corps artist, a reservist who owned a gallery in town. They hit it off, and, since she was retiring, she helped arrange for Mr. Fay to get back into the Marines and take over her job -- despite his age of 46 years.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Marines sent him to Afghanistan, with no orders other than to do art. He was deployed twice to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq. In the battle for Ubaydi, near the Syrian border, he was hit by shrapnel, a wound that was, to his good fortune, both light and in his left, nondrawing arm. Painting combat "is the real deal, and I consider myself a realist," he says.
In the field, Warrant Officer Fay often sketches in pencil or takes photographs to use as models for paintings, especially if the firing is heavy. He grants himself painterly license to create an image that is authentic, but not always literal. Once he used dirt from the battlefield to make the proper colored pigment for a watercolor of a Humvee ambulance churning its way through the historic Iraqi city of Babylon.
Warrant Officer Fay sees beauty where others might see just destruction. During three days at Observation Post Horea, he hung out with the grunts, the front-line infantrymen, and reveled in the brass spiral of machine-gun belts, the subtle green-on-green jigsaw puzzle of a sandbag wall, and the hidden stories of spent bullet casings in the concrete rubble. The sun streaming through the IV bottles, as they awaited wounded men, reminded him of the glistening quality of Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring."
In the outpost's front compound, an area the infantrymen cross at a sprint to avoid Iraqi sharpshooters, he crouched behind a generator to sketch the sandbagged guardpost at the main gate and the crumpled building beyond it. "This is about as far out on the tip of the spear as you can get -- Post One at O.P. Horea," he said. He was drawn to the landscape of mud and broken pallets, sand bags and shattered walls. "I was sort of hoping there were no snipers," he said after completing his sketch.
The infantrymen consider him something of a curiosity on the battlefield, but they generally like his work. "Did you go to school for that, sir?" asked Cpl. Jonhatan Covarrubias, peeking at the sketches.
Warrant Officer Fay did, of course, but at the same time, he remains very much a Marine. He was eating a ready-to-eat chicken-and-noodles meal for dinner recently when the outpost came under attack, from suspected rocket launchers on one side and automatic weapons fire on the other. He hurriedly put on his helmet and flak vest and raced to the roof with his assault rifle, but not his sketchpad.
"When it's hitting the fan, you don't want to miss out on the opportunity to fire back," he said.
All Eyes Down by Michael Fay