Painted Deserts documents the past 20 years of U.S. Army presence in the Middle East. During the first Gulf War, the US Army Center of Military History sent two teams of Soldier-artists to document the experiences of the American Soldier in the Middle East. When they returned, Army Chief of Staff General Gordan Sullivan was so impressed with their work that he formalized the position of Artist in Residence for the US Army Center of Military History, a position that still exists today. Ten years later, the U.S. Army was once again called to the Middle East after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In the following online exhibit, Army Artists, some who were Artists in Residence, others regular Army who donated their talent and time,describethe War on Terror from the perspective of the Soldiers as they sweat, labored, and fought in the Middle East. Reoccuring themes emerge: open expanses of sand; pale, washed-out landscapes; a focus on the Army vehicles that provide sustanence, cover, and a link to the homeland; and always the Soldier, roaming through foriegn cities and landscapes, searching.
Heather Englehart, Convoy Live Fire, 2004
Convoying is one of the most dangerous activities for troops in the Middle East. These missions require hours of practice, as well as a tremendous amount of skill and coordination between the troops involved. Convoy Live Fire was based on artist 1LT Heather Englehart’s experience in one such convoy. It depicts members of the Louisiana National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 244th Aviation, rehearsing complex convoy operations at Camp Udari, Kuwait. Englehart was a member of a National Guard unit and lacked some basic painting supplies in the field, so she improvised and used tent canvas for her painting.
The convoy in this image appears to be stopped, what do you think the Soldiers shown here might be doing?
Heather Englehart, ROC Drill, 2004
The Army conducts Rehearsal of Concept (ROC) Drills, generally at the Headquarters level using scale terrain models to rehearse and plan out an operation. Repeatedly conducting these drills is intended to ensure that everyone involved can avoid mistakes and increase efficiency. Englehart, a National Guard soldier who volunteered her talents to document her deployment, shows Soldiers maneuvering in a mock assault across the Kuwaiti desert while their comrades watch in the background.
The Soldiers depicted here are all looking out beyond the frame. What do you think they might be looking at?
Elzie Golden, Fallujah, 2005
For many Americans, the word “Fallujah” calls to mind heavy combat, troop surges, and the most heated period of the War in Iraq. But for Soldiers who spent time there, capturing the totality of their experience is far more complicated. In this image by SFC Elzie Golden, we are reminded of all the time Soldiers spent waiting and thinking in the Spartan environs of their base camps in Iraq. The rifles hanging on the wall in the background suggest that this resting Soldier might not be as lucid as he at first appears.
What was it about this specific moment that you think caught the interest of the artist?
Timothy Lawn, Air Navigation Position, 2005
This artwork by artist Timothy Lawn, who deployed to OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM as a photographer, print journalist and combat illustrator, documents some of the equipment that would have been familiar to any Soldier serving in the Middle East. Lawn often used his illustrational style to record the equipment and machinery familiar to Soldiers throughout their periods of service.
What part of this drawing do you think might have been most interesting for the artist?
Elzie Golden, Martyrdom Denied, 2005
“This is the house [in Mosul, Iraq] where Uday and Qusay Hussein [Saddam Hussein’s sons] were killed, being destroyed shortly afterwards [by members of the 101st Airborne Division] to prevent the site from becoming a symbol for martyrdom.”
-- Elzie Golden
How would you describe the affect of the artist’s use of color in this image?
Christopher Thiel, Masters of Chaos Set It Off, 2006
Masters of Chaos Set it Off depicts four Special Forces Soldiers firing bazookas in unison. Repetitive arcs of fire extend across the inky black sky as fat fireballs explode behind the row of Soldiers, emphasizing the immense power of their weaponry. MSG Thiel served as the Artist in Residence at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Museum Division from 2006-2008.
What do you think it might be like to step inside this artwork?
Peter Varisano, Desert Storm 101st Style, and Elzie Golden, Satan's Sandbox
These artworks all demonstrate Soldiers’ fascination with aerial machinery. In Desert Storm 101st Style, the two heavy green helicopters kick off clouds of painterly dust almost obscuring the minaret rising in the background. In the image by Elzie Golden, the helicopters prowl across a hellish landscape smoldering with burning oil fields and overrun with tanks. In these works, the Soldiers are seen only in sillhouette inside the cockpit, or cannot be seen at all, yet their presence is implied through the powerful, nimble machines depicted in each image.
What do you think inspired these Soldier Artists to devote their energies to painting these helicopters?
Christopher Thiel, Bailey's Pre-Combat Checks, and Another Day at the Office
In both of these images, artist Christopher Thiel’s emphasis is on the Soldier’s work. These closely cropped images create a sense of urgency, inviting the viewer into the action to share in the Soldiers’ experience. The viewer has the sense of being with the subjects, almost able to hear their voices and feel the heat of their weaponry. Thiel says the purpose of an Army Artist is to record Soldiers from a personal perspective, "and make Soldiers the heart of the story."
How might the effect of these images change if you could see more of the surrounding scene?
Elzie Golden, Tracking Bin Laden, 2002
In this vividly rendered painting, an Afghan villager leads his pack mule through a rocky mountain pass as an Army Humvee plods across a small river. The gunner peering out from the roof of the Army vehicle scans the jagged hillside as the Soldiers drive through this remote landscape in search of the mastermind of 9-11. Here, artist Elzie Golden pays close attention to the landscape; the reflection of the sky off the water, the hard shadows on the rocks, and the natural comportment of the villager all serve to draw the viewer into the world of the painting. A skillfully drawn work, it won first place in the Military Graphic Artist of the Year competition in 2002, Fine Art Category, the second time the artist was so awarded.
How would your experience of this work change if you didn’t know the title?
Heather Englehart, Big Country, Camp Anaconda, Iraq 2004
“Every job, no matter how large or small plays an essential role in completing every mission. One of the war’s most critical behind the scenes players is the fueler. Without fuel, an essential logistical component, missions both in the air an on the ground stop dead in their tracks.
As the sun rises on an airfield at Camp Anaconda in Iraq, this POL [petroleum, oils, and lubricants] specialist known as “Big Country” climbs atop an HEMTT [heavy expanded mobility tactical truck] tanker preparing to check the fuel level.”
-- Heather C. Englehart
How does knowing the meaning of the title affect the way you percieve the image?
Heather C. Englehart, Housing Area, 2004
“Sandstorms in arid regions are as common as the blizzards in much of the United States. Losing oneself is not unheard of. This piece is a bit of a play on reality. The reality of the situation is that the powdery sand often takes over, blending the horizon line where the sky reaches down to meet the ground. Everything from the concrete barriers to the sky appeared to get lost in the sand. In reality, the living quarters positioned behind the concrete T-barriers would also take on the color of the sand, blending in. With an artistic license, I chose to place emphasis on the living quarters with the intent of reminding the viewer that in the midst of it all, we were still there.”
This artwork is called Housing Area. What do you think it might be like to call the place depicted in this image “home”?
Martin J. Cervantez, Tailgating Over The Valley, 2009
“SGT Espejo II and SGT Mendez from the California National Guard sit on the tailgate of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and watch out over a valley in Northeastern Afghanistan while on a personnel delivery mission. Smoke from evasive flares can be seen trailing the aircraft reminding everyone on board that no flight is routine and that they are still in hostile territory.”
-- Martin Cervantez
What kind of feeling is invoked by the artist’s use of high contrast here: the dark insides of the helicopter vs. the bright valley below?
Martin Cervantez, Treacherous Corner, 2009
Martin Cervantez’s Treacherous Corner is based on his personal experiences serving in Afghanistan. It depicts a Humvee driving down a narrow path, with a civilian residence on one side and a steep ravine on the other. “This type of road is very dangerous,” Cervantez recalled, “and leaves the patrol with nowhere to go if ambushed by the enemy. The soldiers on this patrol were stationed at FOB (Forward Operation Base) Blessing located in the north-east part of Afghanistan near the Pakistan Border.”
How would the effect of this artwork be different if the Soldiers and civilians were moving towards rather than away from the viewer?
Load 'Em Up, Marshall Williams, 1991.
A Huge Responsibility, Martin J. Cervantez, 2008.
Providing Food, Peter G. Varisano, 1993.
Captain Fredia Resurrects Alaska, Richard J. Peterson, 1974.
Dry Goods, Peter G. Varisano, 1993.
Target Practice, Joseph Santoro, 1970.
Coast Artillery, James Baree Turnbull, 1943.
Street Scene, Kenneth J. Scowcroft, 1967.
ROC Drill, Heather C. Englehart, 2004.
Plan Accordingly, Gary Cassidy 2002.
September 11, Henrietta Snowden.
Desert Storm 101st Style, Peter Varisano.
Satan’s Sandbox, Elzie Golden 2003.
Bailey’s Pre-Combat Checks, Christopher Thiel 2007.
Another Day at the Office, Christopher Thiel 2006.