By Paul X. Rutz
My partner and I are developing a special relationship—probably not unique as far as these things go, but important to us after the trial and error we’ve put into it.
Sculptor Christopher Wagner and I meet almost daily most weeks in my Northeast Portland studio to paint and mold images of combat veterans. Right now, we’re booked pretty solid with men and women willing to sit, stand and twist through the dynamic poses we negotiate with them, talking through whatever topics come up, singing along occasionally with the iPod songs. It wasn’t always so.
I make it a point to work with live people in my studio almost all the time, trying to work through questions on how we see and what picturing an event is, rather than relying on the ease (and distortions) of photography. I find models to help me in that inquiry all over the place—sometimes relatives and coworkers, sometimes friends of friends or a guy at a bar. But none of my usual model finding habits could fit the criteria for this project.
I moved to Portland three years ago, and when Chris and I wrote our grant to fund this project, I could think of only one combat vet I knew well in this city. He became our first model, and we portrayed him texting his friends to find someone else who might be interested in posing for us. In our off hours, Chris and I hit the internets to find more.
We would get names and phone numbers, leave messages about the importance of the project, and not hear back. Or we’d hear back, make plans to start the portrait, and watch those plans get scratched by circumstance. That happened with one guy who sounded perfect over the phone. He said he was enthusiastic about the goal of these portraits and had a day job working in the veterans community. He would’ve had some excellent stories, I think, from not only his job as a vets advocate, but also his past as a gay Air Force enlistee. As soon as we locked down a date to start posing, he took a new job in Seattle.
It was like dating. I thought if there were a dating site for connections between portraitists and vets, we were ready with our list of most desired traits. “I want someone who can meet [fill in the blank], who cares about [these things], who represents diversity [in these ways].” Type in the answers and the algorithm would find the right match. We tried Craigslist and the like, and that gave us zero leads.
In ten portraits of combat veterans, by the way, how many ways can you spell “diversity.” Age and theater of service went hand in hand: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan—each combat theatre brought with it veterans of a certain age range. What about branch? Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, or maybe a foreign military? Gender: Male combat vets were easiest to find, but given the shifting roles of women in our military we should seek to portray females. Should we stop with the binary gender division or go deeper? (Bradley/Chelsea Manning came to mind.) Sexual identity: Good-bye “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” hello gay servicemembers finally able to talk openly about their home lives! Ethnicity: the city of Portland, I’m learning all over again, is a very white town.
We told ourselves not to chase diversity too hard since there’s no way to capture the tastes and quirks of thousands of combat vets in just ten portraits. And that was the point from the beginning: making portraits of individuals: putting aside statistics to focus on particular, human interactions, not in abstractions about a population.
These days our schedule is filling with veterans because we eventually found that bridging gaps between the military and artistic communities is easier when our models are members of both groups. Circles of shared taste simply matter. Posing for this kind of live portrait—thirty or forty hours in a studio over a month or two with two guys looking at you—requires faith that an effort like that will lead to something important. There are plenty of easier ways to spend one’s free time. So as much as we would like our project is about bridging gaps between the veteran and arts communities, perhaps we’re not building as many new bridges as we’d like, but strengthening existing ones.
The dating continues. Chris and I visited a gallery this past week that put on a show of pictures by veterans in need. Some three-person coffee dates will follow, and hopefully we’ll fill our portrait schedule through the summer.
“Between Here and There” is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.