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Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art from Afghanistan and Iraq / Soldier

July 8 through October 21, 2007


From July 8 through October 21, 2007, the James A. Michener Art Museum offers artistic interpretations of the American military and its Middle East experiences through two individual, yet complementary exhibitions. Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art from Afghanistan and Iraq presents Marine Warrant Officer Michael Fay's drawings and watercolors, while Soldier highlights photographer Suzanne Opton's portraits of military men and women shortly after their return from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both exhibitions are on view at the Museum's Doylestown location.

"These two powerful exhibitions present very different points of view about the experiences of our military," said Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator at the Michener Art Museum. "One artist sees war from the inside -- literally from the trenches -- while the other artist contemplates the effects of war as etched in the faces of the returning warriors. Together, these insightful and heartfelt images remind us both of the reality of our wars and the humanity of those who are called upon to fight our wars."

Marine Warrant Officer Michael Fay, a Reservist from Fredericksburg, Virginia, is one of only two active-duty combat artists currently serving in the United States Marine Corps. In an age of digital photography and embedded journalists, Fay continues a tradition of combat art that dates back to ancient times. Fay puts a human face to war as he cultivates art for its own sake, an activity which, in his words, serves as "one of the many ways the Marine Corps nurtures its devotion to the core values of our American republic."

Fay's drawings and watercolors, on view in the Fred Beans Gallery, depict Marines conducting their routine business in difficult and unfamiliar settings. The exhibition of more than 50 works created during two tours each in Afghanistan and Iraq is named Fire and Ice in response to the extremes faced during military service in the Middle East.

"My art articulates what is true and real about the actual experience of war and warriors," wrote Fay in a catalog of his work. "My intent, especially in view of current events, is to give people another experience of events, another insight as we all struggle to understand this unfolding drama called the War on Terrorism. It is also my hope that this experience, though grounded in realism, is more poetry than prose, and more art than journalism."

A native of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Fay studied briefly at the Philadelphia College of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and earned an undergraduate degree in Art Education from Penn State University. When not deployed overseas, the 53-year-old artist works at the Marine Corps Historical Division in Quantico, Virginia.

Upstate New York-based photographer Suzanne Opton is interested in the individual behind the uniform. Soldier, on view in the Betz Gallery, is an exhibition of photographic portraits of military men and women at Fort Drum in New York shortly after their completion of at least 100 days overseas in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Using a 4 x 5 view camera, Opton devised several strategies for these portraits, including traditional views of face and upper torso as well as more unusual poses in which each soldier is asked to lay his or her head down on a table. Opton's images sometimes include spouses or other soldiers, and often focus on close-ups with heads and hands nearly filling the whole frame. These postures provide a vulnerable look at the faces of individuals who have literally been on the front lines. As Opton expressed, "In making these portraits of soldiers, I simply wanted to look in the face of someone who'd seen something unforgettable."

Opton's work has been exhibited internationally, and is featured in permanent collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris; the Musée de'Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Her photography has appeared in a variety of publications including Orion, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek and Fortune. Opton teaches at the International Center of Photography and the Cooper Union.

Contact Sheet 136, a 48-page paperback catalog of Opton's photographs, is available in the Museum Shop. Published by Light Work, the catalog includes an essay by renowned photography critic Vicki Goldberg.

In conjunction with these two exhibitions, the Museum presents one-hour lectures by each of the artists: Michael Fay, Tuesday, July 10 at 1:00 p.m. and Suzanne Opton, Tuesday, September 4 at 1:00 p.m. Fee. Advanced registration required. For more information or to register for programs, please visit www.michenerartmuseum.org or call (215) 340-9800.


Fire and Ice

by Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator, James A. Michener Art Museum

There are very few artists who have uttered the words that Michael Fay once did after finishing a sketch: "I was sort of hoping there were no snipers." Fay is part of the Marine Corps Combat Art Program, a program that began in World War II and has continued in every significant American war since, including Korea, Viet Nam, Kuwait, and the two ongoing post-9/11 conflicts.

The Combat Art Program is remarkable for many reasons. Perhaps the most remarkable is that it exists at all, though the surprise that civilians often feel upon hearing of its existence is a reflection of our lack of understanding of the core ideals of the Marines. As Fay says, "The Marine Corps at its center is concerned with excellence and the values that inform a free and open democratic society.Many nations have succumbed to internal military coups because their military culture lost sight of what they were tasked to defend in the first place." Equally remarkable is the nature of the program itself, which utilizes the slower, more contemplative, and time-honored media of drawing and watercolor, and sends its artists into harm's way to do nothing more or less than make art.

Even more remarkable, given the conditions in which it was made, is the quality of the art these artists have produced. Mike Fay's work exemplifies the best of this tradition. He has the gift of empathy -- he sees and understands what his comrades are going through -- and he has the ability to render his insights in simple yet beautiful drawings. Exhaustion, numbness, innocence, fear, reflection, inner strength, ferocity -- all these qualities, and more, flicker across the faces of Fay's Marines. True, they are people in combat -- but they're mainly just people, like you and me, feeling the same things that you or I would feel in their situation.

One of the great sources of shame for my generation -- the Baby Boomers -- is that, in the heat of the moment, we let negative perceptions of the Viet Nam War extend to those who were called upon to fight that war. Our country's feelings about the conflicts Mike Fay depicts are complex, to say the least. What should not be complicated are our feelings about the men and women who risk their lives and their emotional well-being every day in these conflicts, as well as the families of those men and women who endure their own heavy burden of worry, helplessness, and grief. The Michener Art Museum is pleased and honored to hang on our walls these insightful and heartfelt images that remind us both of the reality of our wars and the humanity of our warriors.

Exhibition text for Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art from Afghanistan and Iraq by Michael Fay

What is a combat artist? The answer is deceptively simple-an artist who goes to combat. This is not unlike a landscape artist going out into the hills of Vermont, or a figure painter posing a model in the soft north light of a Soho loft. However, a combat artist's working conditions are markedly different in obvious and critical ways. In addition to art supplies, I carry a 9-millimeter pistol and an M-16 A4 rifle. How close do I get to actual combat? Very close. I have one minor shrapnel wound and was injured when a Humvee I was riding in nosedived into a large I.E.D. crater in the dark. I have fired my rifle at the enemy in pitched battle. All these elements -- the crushing weight of gear in the heat, the pain of injuries, the adrenaline rush of firefights, the boredom of downtime -- are part of the process for me, along with a constant vigilance for cultivating ideas and images. I am both with and of the Marines-with them as observer and of them as fellow combatant.

What has war got to do with art? Images of war and warriors have been part and parcel of art history since time immemorial. For me, particular pieces reverberate with the presence of the first combat artists. When I look at the statue from Greek antiquity The Dying Gaul, I know viscerally that the original sculptor witnessed this scene. The dying warrior's posture, wound, thick locks of hair, and Celtic jewelry shout this fact, and make me think of the warriors I've sketched: the wounded trying to rise; the exhausted collapsing in corners and against walls, with awkward battlefield haircuts (probably shorn by a buddy's knife blade) echoing the Gaul's mop of hair.

I'm often asked by journalists, "Are you an artist who happens to be in the Marines, or a Marine who just happens to be an artist?" That's a question I try to answer each day, but one I fear will remain perpetually open. What I can state with certainty is that I am passionate both about what I do and the subject of my art, United States Marines. I can also witness to you unequivocally about the devotion the Marine Corps has to the promotion and sustenance within its ranks of those values and activities that form the bedrock of a free and open society, not the least of which is the creation of art for art's sake. The Marine Corps is deeply informed by the pursuit of excellence and the cultivation of a set of core values devoted to the defense of our republic. When I am sent into harm's way it is with one simple order, "Go forward. Do art."


About Michael Fay

Marine Chief Warrant Officer Michael Fay, a Reservist from Fredericksburg, Virginia, is one of two official combat artists currently serving in the Marine Corps. He was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and is the oldest son of a Marine officer who served before and during WW II. Michael Fay first served in the Marines from 1975 to 1978 as an infantryman, attaining the rank of sergeant. He then left the service to pursue a college degree and earned a BS in art education from the Pennsylvania State University in 1982. He re-enlisted into the Marines in December, 1983 and served on active duty until September, 1993. During this ten-year period he participated in several conflicts including Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Fay re-enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in January, 2000, to become a combat artist with the Field History Detachment supporting the Historical Division of the Marine Corps. As an official Marine Corps combat artist he has been mobilized for four extended periods and has served two tours each in Afghanistan and Iraq.


(above: Warrant Officer 1 Michael D. Fay, USMCR, The Other Side of Exhausted, 2005, pencil on paper, H.10 x W. 7 inches. Courtesy of the Art Collection, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, VA)


(above: Warrant Officer 1 Michael D. Fay, USMCR, Taking a Knee- Lance Corporal Padgett, 2005, pencil on paper, H.14 x W. 11 inches. Courtesy of the Art Collection, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, VA)


Exhibition text for Soldier by Suzanne Opton


We all experience strategic moments when we feel most alive. Whether transcendent or horrific, these are the moments that we will always remember. After all, what are we if not our collection of memories? In making these portraits of soldiers, I wanted to look in the face of a young person who had seen something unforgettable.

I photographed 90 soldiers at Fort Drum army base in northern New York state (the home of the 10th Mountain Division), shortly after their return from Iraq and Afghanistan. My initial portraits were traditional -- standing, contemplative, in desert uniform, but without headgear. These are the "everyman" soldiers. They could be from any war -- World War I, Vietnam, Operation Iraqi Freedom -- we don't know.

Then I asked each soldier to lay his or her head on the table. From this vantage point the head becomes a simple object. I meant it to be isolated and vulnerable. I think of these images as a combination of my setting the stage, making the rules, and the soldiers bringing themselves to the game. These portraits embody the traditional photographic concept of capturing real events. I still believe in the power of that. But I am not a photojournalist. What I like best is to apply some provocative structure to a real moment in time. In this case, the large color images bring to mind the heads of toppled statues or fallen warriors. By virtue of the slow process of working with a large format camera, the subject's mind may wander during the session. Although conscious of being looked at, the subject may be lost in thought when the exposure is made. The implication of being shot down was not lost on these young men and women, but the pose is also a little like seeing someone opposite you with his head on the pillow.

In continuing the theme of heads, I photographed soldiers being held in the hands of others. In the process, I found that when together with their wives, the soldiers were often unresponsive to the touch of the other. We understand that the trials of war are often something shared only among comrades. They are memories that soldiers always carry with them, that separate them from the rest of society.


About Suzanne Opton

Suzanne Opton is a self-taught photographer who grew up in Portland, Oregon. She works with a large-format camera, and it is through years of work as a portrait photographer that she perfected her lighting technique and approach to color. Opton's photographs have been widely exhibited in the United States and abroad, and her work is in the collections of the Austin Museum of Art, Austin, Texas; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France; the Brooklyn Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Polaroid Collection; the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon; and the Musée de l'Eysée, Lausanne. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Opton lives in New York City and teaches at the International Center of Photography.


(above: Suzanne Opton, Soldier Wright: 366 days in Iraq, 2005, silver gelatin print on paper, H. 16 x W. 20 inches. Collection of the Artist)

(above: Suzanne Opton, Soldier Deltaph: 382 days in Iraq, 2005, silver gelatin print on paper, H. 16 x W. 20 inches. Collection of the Artist)

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