War Story

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"It's direct!  He has a statement to make, and he makes it.  He owes nothing to anybody!"  In the 1956 film "Lust for Life," Paul Gauguin, played by Anthony Quinn, explains the difference between what he considers real art composed by Vincent Van Gogh, and the well-plotted parody work of post-Impressionist Georges Seurat: Honesty.  Gauguin believes honesty to one's own feeling and talent is the final measure of a man's creation.  By this film's definition, painter and ex-Marine David Richardson's debut novel "War Story" (Permutation Press, 2019) -- a plot-boiling blend of art, combat, and life drawn from the author's very own experiences -- is the genuine article.

A painter-cum-Marine-turned-writer's story of blood and brushstroke.

We meet our hero, Major Clay Steerforth, as he swaggers into a favorite Georgetown cigar shop on a sunny spring afternoon.  A proud U.S. Marine, Steerforth spends part of his days at the George Washington University.  There, he teaches military history to a classroom full of aspiring Navy and Marine Corps officers.  Steerforth spends the other parts of his days smoking greasy cigars, exercising vigorously on District running trails, imbibing booze and tea with a few favored running mates, and daydreaming about the war in Iraq.  He wants badly to slake his thirst for combat.  If a war is on, "a man either volunteers to fight, or he spends the rest of his days justifying his absence," Steerforth explains to students.  For him, war is the ultimate test of training, mettle, and artistic transgression.  And so, when the opportunity arises to lead a team of military advisors in Anbar Province, Steerforth leaves Washington, D.C. behind, bidding a stoic 'goodbye' to his girlfriend, packing his kit, and stepping off toward the fields of fire and glory.

But Steerforth also packs a sketchbook.  Like the author, our hero is a lifelong artist, schooled by his "magical" mother, an artist and art teacher, in the ways of light, color, and perspective.  He owes her his talent and his commitment to craft.  But he owes the war at least some of his inspiration.  In spite of the combat violence or perhaps because of it, Ramadi gives Steerforth enough images and sense impressions to fill a Moleskine.  Blood on the sand.  Soldiers huddled around a campfire.  Bullet holes through a billboard.  The acrid smell of trash and human waste lit on fire.  A beguiling visitor to a remote combat outpost.  At every stage in the narrative, Richardson is a sensuous writer, for whom touch, taste, tone, and smell are ingredients as essential to storytelling as character or dialogue.  Such details of imagery linger in the reader's mind, adding a tactile element to "War Story" sometimes missing from the introspective war stories crafted by his warrior-writer contemporaries.              

Most of all, Richardson's story is honest.  The author lived most of what he writes.  What follows is our conversation about art and writing.  

JW:  What is the difference between art and entertainment?

DR:  This is a fine line, and it changes.  Henri Matisse was a decorative artist in his time, who is more popular today than he was during his lifetime.  Pablo Picasso was more of a serious artist in his time; he was more experimental and daring.  However, artists today paint more like Matisse than Picasso.  So, Matisse may have seemed merely the 'entertainment' painter to his contemporaries, but his work has grown into something more significant.  What I'm saying is that art always has a historical depth, a knowledge depth, that demands more freshness and technical skill than popular entertainment.  Pop music is spontaneous and pleasing, but it is derivative of something else more significant, and it's not hard to hear the derivative aspects in the composition and melody.  This makes popular music superficial.  Real art is less superficial.

JW:  Is art your vocation or your avocation?

DR:  Art is my avocation.  I do art because I do it and not to make money or pay my bills.  All of my relationships with women have ended because she says "art is more important to you than I am."  But there is a thrill that draws me back to creative work over and over again.

JW:  Describe your voice, your perspective as an artist.  Is that different from your voice as a writer?

DR:  My perspective as an artist comes from a few different places.  My mother is the first place.  She was a colorist; she painted flowers.  She taught me the basics of composition and color.  My brother is also an artist, but more conceptual.  He doesn't go for accuracy.  I have taken or borrowed from both of them.  The impetus for my paintings, for the most part, has to do with beauty and war.  I combine them.  I will say there is more war in my paintings than beauty, however.  My series on Korea was about beauty, neon crosses on a hillside, bright colors throughout.  But my series on the Trojan War was about war.  I go back and forth.  The original source of my art is my mother.

The voice I use in the book comes from "Papillon" by Henri Charrière.  This is the voice I took or assumed or borrowed to write my story, and I didn't even realize it until I went back to read over my drafts.  It's a grim tone, much grimmer than my paintings.  On the other hand, my artwork is more abstract and lighter in tone.  I believe there is something about the abstract that, when you start talking about it, is no longer abstract.  Words have a way of clogging up the channel of communication.  They cannot probably convey or transmit the effect of abstract work.  Personally, I prefer near-abstract art, which says something that cannot be said with words.  To contrast writing and painting: A book is talking and using words to evoke feeling.  Painting is composing something that is silent, that has no words.  One is narrative and one is pure feeling. 

JW:  Name a favorite work of art.

DR:  There's a guy out there named H.C. Westermann, who was a Marine.  He did a series of small works called "Death Ships," which were shapes of ships, like aircraft carriers, fashioned out of wood.  He sanded and polished these pieces until they glowed, and they still fascinate me.  Westermann took this imagery from his experience; he was on an aircraft carrier in WWII and later served as a Marine infantryman in the Korean War.  He sought out service in wartime and somehow balanced that instinct with the ability to transform his feeling into beautiful sculpture. 

He was very well-known in the '60s, if not so much today.  His art ended up on the cover of the Sergeant Peppers album.  I have no idea how the hell that happened. 

JW:  Name a favorite work of fiction.

DR:  I've read so much fiction.  Take a look at John Williams' book "Stoner."  Williams wrote the book after he retired from teaching college.  He was a veteran, and he's writing about a dirt-poor country boy who grows up to become a classics professor.  I know; that probably doesn't sound interesting, but hang with me on this.  The language and plot are incredible, and Williams' ideas are exceptional.  I came to this book at a time when I was living through something very similar to what happens in the story, and it helped me to know that I wasn't the only person feeling that way.  It's absolutely in my Top 5 favorite novels, which of course includes Huck Finn and Great Expectations.

Let me say a bit about non-fiction.  My reading between the two probably is split 50-50, but fiction and non-fiction inform two totally different things.  Fiction tells a story.  It speaks to the reader's aspirations, hopes, dreams.  Non-fiction speaks to what already is or was before.  Before my deployments, I read a ton of stuff about combat, and I was not surprised by anything I saw during deployment.  The reading prepared me well.  But  I was surprised by how afraid I was during combat; the feeling of fear.  I was not ready for it.  To the degree that I had success in Iraq, I attribute that to my reading.

One last thing on this.  It is not that inspiring to read facts about the world.  But stories heal wounds, like Williams' book healed things for me.  Stories move us along in life; they tell us what is possible or what could be.

JW:  Where is your favorite place to think?

DR:  My studio.  It's in the back of my house.  I built it by myself in 2013.  It's on stilts.  Carl Jung did something similar with his space, building it on stilts.  I go there every day even though I don't paint every day.  I wrote much of "War Story" in the studio.  It's messy as shit, which is surprising because the rest of my life is pretty orderly.  But most of what I do there is sit with my French doors wide open, staring outside, watching the trees.  The radio is playing in the background.  I mull things over and let my thoughts drift. My boy has known since he was 18 months that if I'm not in the kitchen or the living room, then I'm in the studio.

JW:  Has the quality and depth of visual art been diminished in the last half-century or so?

DR:  Andy Warhol is the greatest artist since Picasso.  And he knew one thing: man's gods are celebrities.  He put a stake in the ground by covering Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, many others.  These are the images we look at when we want to be someone different than ourselves.  For millennia, we painted icons of Christ and the disciples and other types of religious imagery.  This is where artists drew inspiration.  Then Warhol turned his lens to celebrities.  The worst part is that a lot of contemporary art has degenerated since Warhol into a superficial imitation of what he did.  I don't know if we'll ever get back to a three dimensional, serious subject matter.  I may be the only guy painting about war right now and nobody gives a shit.  This is a heavy topic, but it was common for artists to consider war some 150 years ago.  War, religion, and family are rarely approached with any seriousness today.  I think there is a meaning behind painting beyond just the aesthetics.  Art is not as aspirational or searching as it used to be.  Jeff Koons can do things I cannot do, but I think his work is stupid.  But the market demands it.

JW:  What are the deficiencies of each medium, visual art and literature?

DR:  With painting, you want to transmit a feeling through color and shape.  You want to say something.  Poetry is closer to painting than writing because the brevity of the composition requires that you lift the feeling right out of the reader.  You strike fast for the feeling.  Prose is much different because you use words to tell a story that hopefully brings out some emotion or feeling.

Also, the painter's greatest limitation is his own capacity to feel, while the writer's limitation is his command of the language.  The work of great literature is done through nouns and verbs; there's little need for adjectives or adverbs.  The greatest writers can summon the exact noun or verb for a feeling.  I think John Williams could do that.

JW:  What is the one character trait shared by all artists?

DR:  Being a dreamer, and I'm not talking about imagination.  I'm talking about dreaming of what is possible.  Many artists are derivative of other artists or have taken from other artists in some way.  For example, I think the first cubist was French painter Georges Braque, but when Braque enlisted in the French Army to fight in World War I, Picasso took Braque's work and dreamed cubism into something different.  This dreamer quality is special.  Damien Hirst is not a great artist in my opinion, but I do think he is a great dreamer of what could be.  The same is true for Koons.  Picasso's stuff is dreamed up out of some combination of Braque and Matisse, and Warhol took his advertising work and dreamed it into something just different enough to become pop art.  All of these artists are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Pure imagination as we think of it is, like, starting with a 3 and getting to 10.  Most of us just believe that the artist has a supernatural ability to invent the whole thing in his own head.  But dreamers start with a 9 and get to 10.  Everybody rips off somebody else.  Art is a relationship thing, meaning it's more about who you know and what you can take from them than what you can do all by yourself.  I was told this by an art dealer in New York City.

JW:  Why did you begin writing "War Story" -- what was your purpose?

DR:  At first,  the purpose was to promote my painting.  I ran through the first draft in 30 days.  Then I slowed down, started refining the draft, and realized that there was something I wanted to answer, one question: "Why is man fascinated by war?"  Not why war is destructive or traumatic.  I haven't seen this question asked before, or at least recently, in literature.  Man killing man is the greatest conflict there ever has been, and if you have any doubts about that, then go to any movie theater, popular bookstore, toy store, or just watch television.  "Captain America's" and "Avengers" are everywhere.  We are simply drawn to violence and conflict.

I want to make something clear.  I am not a part of the "Rainy Day Regiment."  It does not interest me to tell a story about how hard everything was at war, or how Staff Sergeant was mean to me, or how I was idealistic and hopeful and war ruined my life.  It could be true for other writers, but not the case for me.  I volunteered for this.  I'm proud of what I did.  My perspective on this might be different because I was older when I went to war.  I was 40.

JW:  Either "you are only as sick as your secrets," or "the things nobody knows about you tell you who you are."  Choose one.

DR:  I am only as sick as my secrets.  I'm not sure what that says about me.

JW:  Either "making art is therapy," or "making art is adversity."  Choose one.

DR:  Making art is absolutely, hands-down adversity.

JW:  How do you hope to be remembered?

DR:  I want to be remembered as a writer and a painter who also took on the greater responsibility of being in the military during a time of war, and served with men in combat.  The key to life is finding the greatest responsibility and claiming it for yourself.  Being a Marine officer was that for me.  I don't want anyone to ever think that writing or painting was a greater responsibility than being a Marine who served honorably in combat.

JW:  What advice can you give to an aspiring artist?

DR:  Have grit.  Find something that you like and commit to making it better, and then learn how to camouflage the derivative aspects of it.  Also, don't obsess over imagination.

John Waters is a contributor and former editor of RealClearDefense and RealClearBooks and a former U.S. Marine that served tours in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East. John is also a graduate of the Naval Academy and the Iowa College of Law. John is currently an attorney with the Fraser Stryker law firm in Omaha, Nebraska.

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