Streams

Friendship Inspires Art Project About Daily Life in Iraq

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Brooklyn artist David Pierce (L) and his high school buddy Justin Wilkens (R). Wilkens served two deployments in Iraq. Brooklyn artist David Pierce (L) and his high school buddy Justin Wilkens (R). Wilkens served two deployments in Iraq. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/WNYC)

Across the street from the noisy construction of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn stands a brick five-story structure. The building's exterior is nondescript, but inside, delicate watercolors painted in pastel desert hues hang on the walls of artist David Pierce's studio.

The watercolors, by Pierce, depict the life of his high school buddy, army infantry specialist Justin Wilkens, while he was deployed in Iraq.

Pierce, 36, first heard his friend was enlisting in 2005.

“And I called him up and I said 'I think this is a really bad idea. Please don’t do it,'” he said, adding that he was worried about his friend’s safety. “And you know, we were 30 at the time, maybe late 20s. You can’t really tell your friend who is 29 years old how to live his life. So, that was the decision he made and I said, ‘You know, OK, but let’s do a project while you’re there.’”

Pierce asked Wilkens to email him photographs of life, as he was seeing it, in Iraq. Although his buddy had never taken pictures before, he started sending snapshots during his first six-month deployment in Iskandariya. During a second 13-month stint, Wilkens sent hundreds more photos from Baghdad that he or his fellow soldiers took.

He said the photographs, which show a variety of scenes — weddings, soldiers patrolling through town and undetonated roadside bombs — were moving and beautiful.

“They were all these really mysterious but very cool looking pictures,” Pierce said. “I liked the way they were all framed. I couldn’t have, I mean with a corny art school degree, I couldn’t have framed and made a better composition than these.”

This past December, Wilkens, 35, traveled to Brooklyn from Arizona and visited Pierce's studio to see his friend’s paintings for the first time.

“I can remember every single one of these pictures as I look at them,” Wilkens said. “I can remember every little detail of those patrols, those missions, everything right down to the time of day, how much sun was out, if I was hot, if I was hungry, thirsty …"

A shot of an Iraqi woman Wilkens and his squad came upon on a daily patrol.At first, Pierce said he felt funny about making work from Wilkens’ photographs. Any day his friend could be injured — or worse.

“It was hard for me at first to justify because it’s like, 'Here is this guy in the middle of this shit, you know, and I’m just making art about it,'” he said. “It seems like a lot easier in my position, you know?”

Pierce chose 30 photographs from the roughly 400 shots Wilkens sent and started painting watercolors of the scenes using pale pink and yellow hues. He also made several large-scale marine green acrylic works. He chose green as a base color for the works because it is the army’s color and it is associated with Islam.

“When I walked into David’s studio two nights ago, I hadn’t looked at a lot of these pictures in a little over a year,” Wilkens said. “I just did not want to view them like some people do. And I couldn’t hardly believe myself, how powerful they are.”

Wilkens said he began to think about joining the army after the events of 9/11. He chose one of the most dangerous jobs in the military — the infantry, which is made up of soldiers often engaged in direct combat — because he knew he could handle it. But while he was in Iraq, Wilkens said he saw friends die from enemy fire. He witnessed rocket attacks launched from the beds of dump trucks.

Pierce's watercolor of Wilkens, who was a machine gunner for his squad, getting his gun ready on a mission."I know that I was in a few explosions as well," he said. "And I do have a little bit of what’s called Traumatic Brain Injury ... ringing of the ears, agitation, some other things that go along with your brain being rattled around in your skull, I guess."

After his three-year contract with the army was up, Wilkens returned home to Phoenix and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.). He sees a psychologist once a week to help him cope with the symptoms and has been prescribed pills to help him sleep.

“Upon getting out of the military I’ve never been in more trouble than I have in my whole life. I’ve never been in more fights, I’ve never drunk more alcohol, I’ve never slept as much, I’ve never been more defiant," he said. "I don’t even know how to say … I was a completely different person. My parents and friends were more scared of me outside of the military after my deployment than they were while I was in.”

"I wanted to injure myself, I wanted to not live," he added.

Wilkens said seeing the art Pierce made from his photographs has helped him reveal inner-most thoughts he has never talked about before.

"Man, this is just one of the most amazing healing processes I could have ever gone through. It’s really opened myself up. It’s things that I never would have ever told anybody.”

Pierce’s studio is not open to the public, but you can see the works the two friends made below. They hope to one day sell their works and donate the proceeds to groups that help veterans cope with P.T.S.D.

WNYC continues to collect stories about active service members from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut who have been deployed to Iraq in the last ten years. Thanks to Public Insight Network, which spearheaded our Homebound Troops project.

Wilkens took this shot of a cache of munitions his squad discovered during his second deployment in Iraq in the backyard of a house.
Justin Wilkens
Wilkens took this shot of a cache of munitions his squad discovered during his second deployment in Iraq in the backyard of a house.
Here's the watercolor Pierce painted from the photo.
David Pierce
Here's the watercolor Pierce painted from the photo.

In this shot, Wilkens' squad fixes a broken down humvee in Baghdad.
Justin Wilkens
In this shot, Wilkens' squad fixes a broken down humvee in Baghdad.
Pierce's watercolor of Wilkens' photo.
David Pierce
Pierce's watercolor of Wilkens' photo.
Wilkens' squad gets briefed on a mission. (Wilkens is the tall guy standing third from the right.)
Courtesy of Justin Wilkens
Wilkens' squad gets briefed on a mission. (Wilkens is the tall guy standing third from the right.)
Pierce's acrylic painting from Wilkens' photo.
David Pierce
Pierce's acrylic painting from Wilkens' photo.
A fellow soldier took this shot of Wilkens, who was a machine gunner for his squad, getting his gun ready on a mission.
Courtesy of Justin Wilkens
A fellow soldier took this shot of Wilkens, who was a machine gunner for his squad, getting his gun ready on a mission.
Pierce's watercolor painting of his friend.
David Pierce
Pierce's watercolor painting of his friend.
Another member of his squad also took this shot of Wilkens standing in between two Iraqi soldiers who were pushing seven feet tall.
Courtesy of Justin Wilkens
Another member of his squad also took this shot of Wilkens standing in between two Iraqi soldiers who were pushing seven feet tall.
Pierce's acrilyc work based on the photo Wilkens sent him.
David Pierce
Pierce's acrilyc work based on the photo Wilkens sent him.
A shot of an Iraqi woman Wilkens and his squad came upon on a daily patrol.
Courtesy of Justin Wilkens
A shot of an Iraqi woman Wilkens and his squad came upon on a daily patrol.
Pierce's watercolor of the photo.
David Pierce
Pierce's watercolor of the photo.
A photograph Wilkens took while watching for enemy movement.
Justin Wilkens
A photograph Wilkens took while watching for enemy movement.
Pierce's watercolor of the work.
David Pierce
Pierce's watercolor of the work.
Wilkens standing on a vehicle used for missions. Beside him is a banner depicting dumptrucks used for enemy rocket launches.
Courtesy of Justin Wilkens
Wilkens standing on a vehicle used for missions. Beside him is a banner depicting dumptrucks used for enemy rocket launches.
A watercolor that Pierce made from the photograph.
David Pierce
A watercolor that Pierce made from the photograph.
Pierce also painted an acrylic work from the photo.
David Pierce
Pierce also painted an acrylic work from the photo.

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Comments [8]

Nunley's Father from Phoenix, AZ

David and Justin, what a great way to hang in there with and for each other. Friedship that keeps on giving.
Justin thanks again for your service and know my prayers continue to be with you.
May you find as much success in your ongoing service to your health and healing as you did in your service to the Iraque people and your country.
I look forward to the next time I have a chance to catch up with each of you.

Jan. 11 2012 10:59 PM
karen Wilknes

Justin, I'm so proud of you. We're always here for you during your healing process and will give the necessary support that you might need. You have amazing friends that are always watching out for you. Remember how you made those friendships and know that you were and are a part of that process!! What an inspirational interview. Thank you for your service to our country and the protection of our liberties.
Love,
Aunt Karen and Uncle Carl

Jan. 07 2012 01:05 AM
Dan from Walterboro, SC

I know that most returning veterans just love to detail their combat experiences for all to read and share. To me it is not so much what you experienced during combat but what you are doing now to deal with it. I have spent forty years learning how to deal with my PTSD and how I got it is of no importance. I have developed skills and techniques that work for me and I have often thought of sharing them with others. I have not because what works for me is probably not something that would work for others. I will not listen to combat stories and I will never tell combat stories because to me they are just that, stories.

Jan. 06 2012 11:03 AM
Peter Macdonald from Ridgewood, NJ

"What It Is Like To Go To War" pub 2011 by Karl Marlantes.

This book may provide "common ground" for the Wilkens family and Wilkens good friend Pierce, to understand each of their perceptions of what it was like ... maybe in less than forty years!

Marlantes from the preface:
"I wrote this book primarily to come to terms with my own experience of combat. So far-- reading, writing, thinking -- that has taken forty years. I could have kept my thoughts in a personal journal, but I took on trying to get these reflections published so that I could share them with other combat veterans. Perhaps, in some way, I can help them with with their own quest for meaning and their efforts to integrate their combat experiences into their current lives....

..."Atlantic Monthly 2011: "It is an articulate and complex search for closure by one veteran for himself and others. This book transcends time, space, societies, literatures and sciences. The veteran reader knows for a certainty that this piece speaks to and for him with the empathic voice of one who shares his experiences, concerns and unsettled issues. All that I would change is the title. I would call it How to Protect the Heart and Soul of a Warrior."...

Jan. 05 2012 05:01 PM
Nunley from Phoenix, AZ

Are you Serious!! These pictures are amazing and I would love to purchase one in support of our service men and woman. Thanks for bringing a different story about the lives of our soldiers and those supporting them back home. I hope our Country fully honors its commitments to these brave soldiers and their families in the future with top quality medical care.

Jan. 05 2012 03:56 PM
Googie Baba from boston, ma

What I really like about this series is that the paintings are from the perspective of the soldier. I think that is very unique. I also really like how the pictures are beautiful and the colors soft even though the subject matter is so painful.

Justin, thank you for your service to the country. Peace to you.

Jan. 05 2012 01:12 PM
Cynthia from NYC- East Harlem

Thank you Justin for your service and to you both for opening a window onto your experience. I wish you success in your project and hopefully this also helps to continue to shine a light on PTSD and help those who are effected.

Jan. 05 2012 10:23 AM
Nina Talbot from Brooklyn

Like this work- inspirational & strong.
Thank you for your service Justin.

Jan. 05 2012 09:26 AM

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