Steve Mumford's watercolored images of battle-torn Iraq filled dozens of sheets in his sketchbook, drawn in the war zone amidst both quiet and chaos, some inked hastily, others leisurely. I am sure that underneath each glass frame, the thick paper still smells like the desert, and the desert smelled like old canvas and boot leather.
I visited Tufts University's Koppelman Art Gallery in Medford, Massachusetts, looking for nostalgia from his images of war.
Mumford's paintings were presented at Tufts in November, 2006, in his show "Baghdad and Beyond: Drawings by Steve Mumford." These bright watercolors and sparse sepia sketches portray Mumford's Iraq, one filled with fig trees, scenic marshy riverbanks, and crowded and hectic street side shopping markets. Those images mix with the deadly and dangerous Iraq of combat patrols, and American infantrymen waiting to charge into a sunny street, searching for a sniper who just killed a friend and fellow soldier.
Mumford's artwork does not represent the Iraq I remember. My Iraq featured only the endless brown desert, ending at the banks of the Euphrates River where the marshes and greenery began. I recall looking down upon the river from a helicopter once, surprised at the sudden appearance of vegetation that, as we banked and flew away, just as quickly disappeared. At the time, I thought the entire country was a dustbowl.
My Iraq was the Iraq of the anti-climactic glorified camping trip otherwise known as Desert Storm, in which I served as an Army photojournalist. It wasn't much of a war, certainly not a tenth of the war soldiers fight there today. But, as I've said since then, I played the war they dealt.
Mumford himself was at the Koppelman this evening, giving a presentation and being feted at an artist's reception. About 125 people attended, listened to his remarks and strolled the exhibit of fifty of his paintings. He spoke about the four separate trips he took to Iraq, embedded with the U.S. military the same as any media member. A typical struggling artist since the mid-'90s, the forty-four-year-old Mumford might be nearing the tipping point of a cultural breakthrough. A camera crew from NBC's Today Show films tonight's appearance.
Trim and mustachioed, Mumford knows how to work a room. He wears a black T-shirt he must know is tight around his chest and arms. His closely cropped brown hair is carefully tousled. Quickly surrounded by a half-dozen starry-eyed women wishfully ignoring his wedding band, he holds court in the post-remarks reception.
He's very personable and happy to chat with this well-heeled audience. When I tell him about the differences in the Iraq he saw and the one I visited sixteen years earlier, he understands exactly what I mean.
"It was like the Wild West. Dust and dirt," he says to me about the desert. When he entered Iraq in 2003, he drove with a crew of French journalists from Kuwait to Basra, through a flat wasteland identical to the Saudi Arabian-Iraqi frontier I had grown familiar with. "North of Basra, the landscape changed completely. It was all green countryside."
His paintings brought that Iraq to the Koppelman. In the tradition of the posh galleries of Boston's Newbury Street, the bright white walls of the wide-open room take nothing away from the exhibited art.
Mumford's displayed paintings are uniform in size, appearing on eleven-by-fifteen-inch heavy stock papers specifically designed for watercolors and ink. The corners of the papers slightly curl where the paint has absorbed and dried, giving the paintings a rugged, aged appearance. They are not matted; each canvas is rear-mounted onto a hard backing, and then protected in a glass frame.
Mumford spent about ten months in Iraq, spread out over four trips beginning in April, 2003, even before U.S. forces occupied Baghdad. He traveled to Tikrit, Samara, Baquba, and the capital city. Embedded with the U.S. military the same as a reporter or photojournalist, he carried watercolors and sketchpads instead of notebooks and film.
He arrived at tonight's appearance straight from several days of work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Soon, sketched and painted images of rehabilitating soldiers at Walter Reed will join similar images already completed, of injured troops at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. The show at Tufts marks the first time sketches from Brooke share display space with those from Iraq.
All of the Iraq artwork here, and dozens of other examples, are also presented in his large coffee-table book, Baghdad Journal, published in 2005.
While the framed images did not remind me of anything, I tell Mumford that one of his paintings, which he presented in a slide show, certainly did.
Titled Sandstorm in Tikrit, the huge five-by-four-foot oil canvas then hung at Postmasters, Mumford's "home" gallery in the Chelsea section of New York City. Unlike the small watercolors on display here, his large format oil paintings were completed in the studio, far removed from the war zone. Their strong detail arrives from the luxury of time. This painting shows a night convoy, traveling through a sandstorm. The headlights of one Bradley Fighting Vehicle shine on a second Bradley in front of it, creating a spotlight effect in the midst of the blowing brown sand. A group of three soldiers rides on top of the more distant Bradley. One of them looks backward, into the headlights glare and toward the painting's viewer. In a second slide showing close-up detail of his face, he looks plaintive, alone, even with two other soldiers sitting next to him.
Mumford said he used actual sand in Sandstorm, throwing handfuls at the canvas, providing layers of depth.
"I really wanted the viewer to feel the physicality of the sand," he said. "To feel that isolation, that sense of danger. I wanted it to look like a ship at sea."
In the mind's eye, the Bradleys could be replaced with ships pitching through fog-enshrouded waves, the crewmen using distant lights to signal each other. Instead of sand, it would portray a salty mist churning off the high seas. That comparison was truly used in the most isolated parts of Iraq. The empty, wind-shifted landscape was called the "high desert," because the flowing sand dunes resembled undulating ocean waves.
Sandstorm works for me on a literal level. It recaptures the second day of the first invasion of Iraq—February 25, 1991. I was about forty miles into the country when the western frontier suffered a monstrous daytime sandstorm.
The sand blew everywhere, through every crack and crevasse. My Humvee didn't have any doors, and the jury-rigged tarp I tied over the driver's side opening barely slowed the wind, much less kept out the sand. Visibility was reduced to nothing. Only the red taillights of the vehicle in front of us kept us going in the right direction. A photo shows my eyes hidden behind fogged-up goggles, with a brown bandanna covering my face and mouth. But the relentless sand exploited any gap in clothing or equipment.
The small photograph, with its shallow depth of field and grainy focus, doesn't do the storm any justice. Other than the blob of green that's actually me, and the tan frame of my Humvee, details are hard to pick out. It's a neat picture, but it doesn't show how monolithic a big sandstorm truly feels.
Sandstorm captures my recollection, even though it presents a lesser storm than the one of my memory. In the glare of the Bradley's headlights, the sand looks like coffee, swirling around the soldiers riding the back of each vehicle. In Mumford's painting, the two visible soldiers' faces aren't completely covered; one doesn't even wear eye protection. The storm must have lacked really fierce winds. Just keeping my eyes open during the 1991 storm, much less driving in a convoy, absolutely required goggles.
Mumford said comic books were his earliest artistic influence, and that experience shows up in the very detailed Sandstorm. In his late-'80s, early-'90s college days at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts and New York's School of Visual Arts, he focused first on abstracts, and eventually moved to "realist" art. As late as 2002 his efforts consisted of, according to a negative review in the Village Voice, "highly colored, semi-sensationalist, quasi-apocalyptic depictions of underwater nudes, submerged cars, and the like. Often these canvases resembled adventure posters or paintings you see on the sides of vans. They were jazzy and weird, but little else." Mumford shows a few examples in his slide-show presentation, and more than a few titters arise from the audience. The Village Voice's descriptions were accurate. He uses a bit of dry humor when introducing these images, seeming to make clear this style represents a past to which he does not intend to return.
"When the war happened, it gave me a completely different relationship to art," he said during his presentation. "In 2003, everyone was watching this kind of war machine build up, and at some point I realized that I could actually go to the war myself."
His journey to Iraq was not overly difficult. He bought his own plane ticket and gained credentials through Artnet.com, a website focused on the art industry. He hooked up with the French journalists and made his way into Iraq. His inspiration for the entire trip was Civil War artist Winslow Homer.
"Homer's art didn't describe the politics. He focused on the experience of the Union soldiers," Mumford said. "His artwork was relatable to soldiers in all wars."
In his first few days in Iraq, he photographed street scenes before realizing how intrusive it was to take unsolicited pictures of Iraqis going about their daily business.
"I was pretending to be a photojournalist. I wasn't an artist, I was a tourist," he said. "I had to work up the nerve to accept I had the right to be there. One day I went outside to smoke a cigarette, and started drawing what was in front of me. I began to regain my composure, began to feel like I belonged."
Because his sketching took time, soldiers and Iraqis alike became more comfortable with his presence, appreciating the effort he put into his interactions. The Iraqis invited him for tea, gathering around as he sketched, nodding approvingly as their streets appeared on his pad; U.S. soldiers paid attention at first, but Mumford said they were much happier gossiping with him about the latest barrack's romances.
"When I started sketching, the suspicion would melt away," especially among the Iraqis, he said, "because they could see what I was doing. People were very excited."
Average Iraqi citizens populate about a third of Mumford's five hundred finished sketches and paintings.
"They would ask if I could draw them," he said. "I got much closer to them than if I had been walking around with a camera."
The comic book influence still appears in his Iraq paintings, and many of the images would fit perfectly in a graphic novel, with text bubbles above the soldier's heads leading a reader through the story. The images of soldiers and streets are not abstract. One woman at the exhibit compares Mumford to Norman Rockwell, for his care with faces and bodies. Just as with Rockwell, no mystery hides in Mumford's images, no veiled metaphors.
"As soon as there was ever a moment to pause, I'd pull out my art supplies and start drawing like crazy," Mumford said. While he did have a camera and sometimes took pictures to use as the model for a final painting, Mumford said he preferred finishing paintings or sketches in the moment the events were happening.
"There's not much thinking. It's a lot of intuitive editing. I wasn't objective, that wasn't my point," he said. The unyielding truth of a photograph cannot be recreated through an entirely subjective piece of painted art, he said. "Information from another source is inevitably mediated. Everybody remembers things differently. When I'm drawing, I'm putting things in, I'm leaving things out. I'm constantly altering as I go, compressing the events of a battle, rearranging things on the battlefield."
Mumford was not objective in his artistic portrayal of the war or his participation in it. During his remarks, he drops a casual statement into the middle of a story about a battle he found himself in as a passenger of a Bradley personnel carrier. It was hit twice by rocket-propelled grenade fire. Very loud and frightening he said, but ineffectual against the Bradley's armor.
"I kept my head down, kept myself out of trouble," he said. "Handed ammo up to the gunner. Stuck my hand out of the hatch every once in awhile and took a picture."
That act made Mumford a combat participant, not merely an artist. The bullets he handed to the gunner had a destination, after all: a building, a home, a person. But as Mumford said—not in defense, because he did not accept the notion that it should have been a controversy—"If you're with soldiers, and you're under fire and they need you to hand up some ammo, you're damn well going to do it."
Later, I ask Mumford what kind of response he's received from veterans. He says he's not sure how many are aware of his work. Baghdad Journal was published late in 2005 and an online journal he posted to Arnet.com while actually in Iraq generated interest. But to this point, the art community gives him the most buzz and business. Most U.S. Army infantrymen do not travel in the same circles as New York City art collectors.
I mean to tell him they'll find his book eventually. Most veterans need a few years to put events in perspective, before they get nostalgic for their salad days. I think most twenty-one-year-old veterans will return to the U.S. and talk about Iraq nonstop for a year or so, until they figure out nobody knows how to respond to their stories. Then they won't mention the war again for fifteen years.
But the subject changes and I forget to tell him that. Before he signs my copy of Baghdad Journal, he asks if I want it personalized. I tell him he can write as much as he likes. I ask if he could even draw a quick sketch, if he can think of one on the spot.
I deliberately make the comment about the sketch. The cameraman from Today hears my request and leans in with the big camera on his shoulder. He takes an extreme close-up of the book's title page, waiting to see what Mumford might draw. As the cameraman crowds in, Mumford gives him a quizzical double take. "I can back off if you want me to, Steve," the cameraman says.
"Just back up a little bit, O.K.?" Mumford gently replies, and then thinks a few seconds about something he could quickly sketch, but now his rhythm seems off. He apologetically shrugs, writes "To Nathan, Thanks for serving in the first one, Steve Mumford," which I am happy with, though I notice the cameraman's disappointment. I don't expect my book to appear on TV. If I was going to make a wisecrack, I could say I'm surprised he found no problem sketching in a war zone, but can't handle a looming camera lens.
I tell him, "Thanks for doing your part, too." But I know he did not really go to Iraq to support soldiers or as "part" of the war effort. He traveled to Iraq as a professional on the job, like a print reporter or photojournalist. Painting is his career.
"I'm not sure they can afford these paintings," Mumford said, when someone asks how much contact he has with soldiers outside of his work. He doesn't mean it rudely, but a fact's a fact. The small watercolors sell for $1,500 each; Sandstorm in Tikrit sold for $15,000. The hardcover edition of Baghdad Journal costs $35. Selling his work and promoting his name keeps Mumford traveling around, shaking hands and signing expensive books. I have no doubt he might easily have gone a different direction, if the eventual results were potentially more lucrative. He made the artistic decision and took the risk that these paintings will sell and earn him money. His philosophy is one I, and I think most veterans, can understand.
Mumford keeps in touch with a few of the soldiers he drew, including Army Capt. Caleb Cage, pictured in the image Lt Caleb Cage Leading Patrol to Buritz. In the painting, Mumford's watercolors recreate the artificial green glow that fills the cab of a tracked Paladin artillery vehicle operating with night vision equipment.
|In the painting, the figure identified as then-Lt. Caleb Cage sits in profile. His one visible eye focuses downward on the indistinguishable screen of a satellite-guided map, his face cast in a slight shade of green as he holds a radio receiver to his ear. Cage looks calm, almost bored, with the faintest appearance of a slouch.|
A viewer of the painting knows Caleb Cage's name but can only estimate what his face really looks like. Watercolors are deceptive and the bright and varied hues fool viewers into thinking they see real detail. They can provide a theory, but not the facts. Standing ten feet back from the best of Mumford's images provides the same general view a photo might give. But as a viewer moves in closer, the brush strokes and shading become evident. Each new layer of color thickens the layer beneath it. Evidence of the painter's hard and time-consuming work begins to appear.
I easily relate to Mumford's mission of capturing the moment. As an Army photojournalist during Desert Storm, I took many documentation photographs. In a photo taken at the northernmost checkpoint on the allied occupation's far western flank, I captured a tiny detail that Mumford might have missed. In the photo, a convoy of passenger-packed trucks and buses wait at a French army checkpoint for permission to continue south to the village of As Salman, about sixty miles north of Saudi Arabia. I had snapped a few shots of the French soldiers chatting with the drivers.
Studying the image many years later, I noticed for the first time an Iraqi woman, everything covered by her traditional black robe except her face, riding in the open air on top of one of the buses. She stared directly at me.
It would be melodramatic exaggeration, saying I saw hate in her eyes. But the look she gave, in the split second of her life now captured forever in the color print, was certainly not happiness to see me.
A hastily sketched watercolor might lose that detail, but still transcend the here-and-now. As Mumford said, paintings rely more on memory than reality. His street scenes of Baghdad recreate moments that passed hours and days before the painting was completed. The final, finished image of Cage, cast in emerald shadow, arrived from a recollection in Mumford's mind, when he sat in that same hazy half-light. Cage moved or shifted in his seat mere moments after Mumford began sketching. The image that became the painted Cage began as an idea, a few quickly drawn lines that Mumford filled with color and energy basically on faith.
The watercolors bring more life to the subjects than the much more detailed larger oil paintings glimpsed in the slide show. Many of the watercolors, and all the sketches, were basically completed in the same sitting as the event. He might have touched them up later, but the form and concept of the piece was visualized and drafted in that specific moment.
The large paintings have been reproduced from photographs or very basic sketches. They are almost too real, too static. While Sandstorm in Tikrit brings back a memory and he certainly got the portrayal right, it's only nostalgia that I feel. Unlike the watercolors, the painting doesn't create an intense, in-the-moment sensation.
"If I couldn't finish something on the scene, I'd finish later using a photo, if I had taken one. I much preferred to do it in the moment," Mumford said. "There's something I like about rushing, about making a line or a mark in a sketch that's inexact."
Once the ink hits paper, there's no going back. He either finished what he started, flaws and all, or he began all over again. A mistake does not always ruin a potential image but in some ways proves a painting's worth, he said. A misplaced line gives the painting a true place in a moment's history, rather than if he "finished it from a photo on a computer screen," Mumford said.
Another image, Soldiers of 3rd Platoon getting ready to bound forward to a sniper's location, minutes after the death of Spc. Josiah Vandertulip, shows three kneeling soldiers waiting in shadow at the end of a covered passageway between two buildings, a sunny street directly in front of them. Only the soldier's backs are visible and their bodies are dark and unidentifiable. Behind one soldier lies an empty plastic one-liter water bottle.
"Those water bottles were everywhere," Mumford said. "I wanted lots of details like that in the paintings. I like the depth, the detail. There should be lots of things for the eye to see, to meander down a street. There were all these scenes of tension, and yet the fig trees would be blowing in the breeze, and the sky was always so clear and blue."
The moment the sketch reveals passed in just seconds, then the soldiers moved forward to search for the enemy. Soldiers of the 3rd Platoon was drawn on October 14, 2004, the day twenty-one-year-old Vandertulip, a member of the 1st Cavalry Division, was killed by a sniper. Without the descriptive sentence explaining the image's backstory, a viewer could assume the three painted soldiers were simply relaxing during a stop on their patrol, rather than trying to avenge a dead friend. And that they did not do, at least that day. According to Mumford's written account in Baghdad Journal, the sniper was not located.
The street appears in yellow and orange paints representing a bright, sunny day. A defined line of shadow extends into the corridor where the three soldiers wait, each ensuring the darkness hides them from any gunman surveying the street itself. The soldiers lack detail, but their indistinctness gives the watercolor its power. Far from a crafted and painstakingly retouched studio painting, this watercolor was started and practically finished by Mumford while he sat in the same alley, sketching and painting quickly in his pad.
Mumford understands the history that he follows, like Winslow Homer during the Civil War. One of Mumford's large oil paintings, which he shows during the slide show, pays homage to a Homer image. The sharpshooter in Mumford's seven-foot-long painting, Sniper, sights his rifle, aiming from a point atop the roof of a downtown Baghdad high-rise. His helmet sits next to him, taken off because its brim rides down over the eyes when a soldier lies in a prone position. The rifle's safety lever is set to Off, and the sniper draws a lethal bead on his target.
|The painting directly reflects Homer's classic Civil War engraving, Sharpshooter on Picket Duty. Homer's woodcut, made for Harper's Weekly in 1862, shows a Union Army sniper deliberately aiming his long rifle. He steadies the barrel on a tree limb, preparing to take a shot at an unseen Confederate enemy.|
Homer's images were also distinctly lifelike, and were published throughout the Civil War by Harper's Weekly (now Harper's magazine), a publication that, not coincidently, recently presented the next chapter in Mumford's work. This part takes place in Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas and serves as a coda to the combat experience. Some of the most seriously wounded soldiers go to Brooke for rehabilitation, including those who have lost limbs or sight. These new sketches are at the end of Mumford's Tufts display.
"My images are not pro- or anti-war," Mumford said. In these images of grievously wounded soldiers, "I wanted to capture the poignancy, the martial spirit these guys have. The spirit of optimism."
At his recent trip to Walter Reed, Mumford observed—and will paint in some form, probably for Harper's again—the amputation of a soldier's ruined leg. In another image painted at Brooke, three soldiers, all with prostheses where one or both legs used to be, practice on an indoor archery range. Mumford points out the ratty blue carpet on the hospital room's floor, as another detail he tries to recreate.
"I don't know if I'd say the soldiers are heroes with a capital H, but I think they're heroic with a little h," he said. "I was really impressed with what I saw, how they reacted under pressure. And how they were at Brooke. This one soldier lost both his legs—both above the knee," he pauses. "That's rough."
But they always stay optimistic, he said. "Some of them are trying to go back to Iraq, back to their units, with prosthetic limbs."
A sketch shows a soldier holding cards with the hook where his right hand used to be. In another, a blind and scarred Mississippi national guardsman tries to work his fingers with a therapist's help. Men with artificial legs ride exercise bikes.
A soldier identified as Corporal Joshua Griffin of the 1st Infantry Division sits on a bed in one sepia sketch. He looks O.K., still possesses all four limbs, though he holds one leg's calf as if it was sore. The image doesn't explain why he was at Brooke. Griffin's eyes seem to indicate either annoyance or anger, maybe at the artist, maybe at his life. Or maybe his gaze shows determination. In Mumford's painting, no real eyes exist to look into, no true expression to interpret. Only what the viewer thinks they see.
The flesh-and-blood Griffin was injured on November 6, 2005. According to the Los Angeles Times, a roadside bomb attack on his Humvee shattered his right femur, broke his jaw, and killed the soldier sitting next to him. Griffin would be airlifted from Iraq to Germany, a tube in his throat, his face seriously burned. From there, he made his way to Texas. While not permanently disfiguring, the injuries still required months of rehabilitation. Mumford visited Brooke in March 2006, and Griffin was still there. But by April he had returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky and was trying to rejoin his unit.
In Mumford's sketch, Griffin wears a T-shirt, its logo neatly recreated in two lines of sepia-inked text. The T-shirt reads: "Temporarily Out of Service."
According to the April 4, 2006 Los Angeles Times, Griffin fought hard for clearance to return to his unit and friends in Iraq once he could pass a final physical fitness test. As of April 4, he was well on his way for a full return to duty. The T-shirt Mumford sketched him wearing—and Griffin's decision to pose in it—turned out to be absolutely correct.
Copyright © Nathan Webster 2007.