BROOKE GLADSTONE: "Go to war, do art." That's the motto of a Marine combat artist. The mission: to capture images of war on canvases and sketchpads. Currently there are three combat artists in the Marines. Sergeant Kristopher Battles is one of them. A 38-year-old former Marine with two small kids and a pregnant wife, he reenlisted last summer after being inspired by the work of another combat artist. By October, Battles was in Iraq, ducking sniper fire while sketching and painting in the theater of war.
If you've never heard of a combat artist, you're not alone. Many of his fellow Marines were surprised to hear of Sergeant Battles' mission. After all, why risk your life making art in a war zone when you can paint from a photograph?
Sergeant Battles, now back in Virginia, says that's just it. In order to be a combat artist, you have to go into combat. SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: Anybody can paint from a photograph. But the Marine Corps' philosophy, and I think all good art, is that if you go and you see and you paint what you feel and you have seen and experienced, it's much more authentic. And the philosophy of the Marine Corps and the combat art program is that it's much stronger expression if you go to a situation and you see it and you experience it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what you paint, at least what we see on your blog, seems to be overwhelmingly scenes of daily life - people standing around, people watching TV, playing board games. Now, I understand the Marines put no restrictions on what you can draw or paint. But do you put any on yourself? SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: Oh, yeah. I believe in creating things that are beautiful. So that may seem a little bit strange for a Marine Corps setting or a war setting, but I believe strongly that life is full of drama and it's full of beauty, and sometimes even though that beauty may not seem immediate or outwardly, you know, obvious, it's still there.
So I see myself as sort of a combination of Richard Schmid and Norman Rockwell, stylistically. My [LAUGHS] values are pretty much, oh, Norman Rockwellian, I suppose. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I'm just wondering about the rendering of historically accurate work as part of your mission. I mean, obviously violence is a part of that war. SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You rarely post about violence. And I think it was in November of last year that you wrote for the first time in your blog that you saw a dead insurgent and you didn't draw a picture of him. SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: Well, I've been debating, actually, and I've been thinking about doing a watercolor of that experience. One of the reasons I have not yet done something about that sort of thing, it's sort of out of respect for the dead. I know that he was an insurgent and therefore the enemy, so to speak. But I just didn't think it would necessarily be respectful. I still may do it. It's definitely in my mind. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In January of last year, you posted on your blog that you hurried to finish a line drawing so that you wouldn't get caught in sniper fire. Didn't your mission at that point seem a little nuts? SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: [LAUGHS] You know, I was 38 years old when I reenlisted. And when you have a wife and three children, of course, you have to question – you know, it's a big gut check as to why you're doing what you're doing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: When our producer called you earlier and asked how it was to transition back to civilian life, you said that you were physically okay. SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: Oh, when I was coming back from the deployment? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: My main thing when I came back was just the shock of, for example, driving down the highway and not having to watch the side of the road up ahead to see if there was an IED – that sort of thing. Civilian life is just a lot more peaceful. Even though it can, of course, be violent, as we've seen recently, there's just a big culture shock difference between being in al-Anbar province, for example, and being in Fredericksburg or D.C. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it's hard to adjust to the serenity here and yet you bring a sense of serenity to the art you create over there. SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: Well, I would hope so. I consider myself part of the classic realist school, depicting reality as it is. But I do hope, like you said, to bring beauty into that which is not always beautiful. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Beauty that exists or beauty that you create? SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: Now, this is the eternal question - is it not? – regarding what the responsibly of an artist is and the power of art is. Even the most staunch realist grapples with abstraction and grapples with, as far as subject matter and theme, how accurate that is. And I'm sure that's the case in writing and journalism, everywhere. You always have to step back and critique and say, have I really portrayed this as it was? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Norman Rockwell once did a political cartoon, very realistic, showing a dead white soldier lying next to a dead black soldier in some marsh in Vietnam. It was spiked by the newspaper. It was never run. Does it surprise you that somebody with whom you feel you share a certain sensibility would do a drawing like that? SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: Wow. Did you say Norman Rockwell? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: And I guess I don't know about that because it wasn't shown. That is shocking. Every artist, no matter what his or her intent with his art, every once in a while feels compelled and should feel compelled to create artwork which should make a statement. It surprises me that Norman Rockwell perhaps made that kind of an image, but it doesn't surprise me that, as an artist, he would create something based upon what he experienced or saw or felt. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sergeant Battles, thank you very much. SERGEANT KRISTOPHER BATTLES: Oh, thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sergeant Kristopher Battles is currently home in Virginia. He expects to be redeployed within the next few months. We'll post a link to his blog, Sketchpad Warrior, on our website, onthemedia.org.