Maybe it was the eyes that you first noticed when you glanced at the portrait above: they are a vivid, piercing blue. Then, maybe you looked at the caption, and you realized that those eyes were painted more than 70 years ago, in 1944. Perhaps if you looked closely, you noticed the location of the painting—Guadalcanal, a place that may conjure up a mental image of a bloody, intense battle on a rocky island in the South Pacific. And did you see the subject’s name? Private “Tex” Henington—maybe not a name you know, but recognizable as a nickname, possibly a name given to him by his buddies, the friends he made while fighting a war on the other side of the world, far away from Texas.
So why is he smiling?
According to the artist, Corporal James Allen Scott, he made Tex grin by spitting tobacco juice into his watercolor tray, in an attempt to eke out a bit more color from the cake of brown paint. While stationed in the South Pacific, Scott painted the portraits of many of his fellow Marines; he gave most of these away for free, but charged the officers the princely sum of three dollars.
Scott’s collection is one of many featured in the Veterans History Project (VHP)’s newest online exhibit, “The Art of War.” Longtime users of our collection may recognize the topic as the subject of an Experiencing War web feature from 2006. In the ten years since that original online exhibit debuted, we’ve received many new contributions of artistic expression, ranging from cartoons to pen and ink sketches, from landscapes to portraits. To commemorate this Veterans Day, we highlight veterans whose stories are told through the art they created.
As their collections make clear, these veterans navigated the experience of war by drawing, painting and doodling. A couple of these veterans, such as Scott and Henry W. McIver, had been art students in their civilian lives; others, like Joseph Farris, went on to become professional artists after the war. For some of these veterans, creating art was a way to cope with the monotony of life in the service. In his oral history, Normand Carleton relates how he used long nighttime hours on radio duty to illustrate the envelopes of the letters he sent home to his wife, Lora. Aboard a troop ship headed to the South Pacific during World War II, David Dresser decided to kill some time by drawing a cartoon a day, to form a cartoon diary of his experiences.
For other veterans, artwork served as an act of catharsis, or a means of capturing the essence of their experience. In his letters home to his family, McIver described his living conditions and the local scenery in Algeria, Italy and France, and offered further documentation in the sketches at the topic of each letter. Like Scott, many veterans chose to draw their comrades; the featured collections are peppered with the faces of service buddies. One such portrait, a faded pencil sketch done by Charles Kavenagh, depicts the solemn gaze of a man identified only as “LeFebure.” The caption, “Misery,” speaks volumes even in its simplicity.
Whether they worked with pen, ink, paint or even a camera, these veterans’ art was born out of their wartime experiences, and provides an evocative and enduring testimony of what they saw, felt and endured.
If you’re a veteran, did you create artwork during your service? Tell us more about it in the comments below, or even better; please consider donating it to the Veterans History Project. Find out how at www.loc.gov/vets.
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