Born: Atlanta, Georgia, 1947 Served in Vietnam, U.S. Army 25th Military Intelligence Detachment, Cu Chi Liaison Team, 1968-69
From the Artist:
From a series of letters, 1982-86:
My interest in images of dead people no doubt has its roots in my Vietnam experience, although I had seen dead people before, when I worked as a nurse's aide in a hospital. When I got to Vietnam and saw my first freshly killed people, two North Vietnamese and one American, it hit me very hard, because then I confronted the seriousness of what I was involved in: I had developed the information that led to an assault on a North Vietnamese Army position. These people were dead because I had started a chain of events that led us to a point of confrontation. This occurred on my first operation there.
My job was to provide intelligence information to units of the 2d Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division. I worked out of Cu Chi base camp and covered an area northwest toward the Cambodian border. I went to Vietnam with a very romantic notion of what war was like. It didn't take long for all that fantasy to dissolve. I was shocked by the level of brutality, and it was even harder to accept when I found myself participating in it.
I was involved in a lot of hostile interrogations where people were beaten and tortured. I saw myself and others behaving in a manner that was very incompatible with my idea of how American soldiers were supposed to act. This vision of our darker side has become the basis for my art or at least a starting point. My work is intuitive, and I do not attempt to present literal Vietnam imagery. Instead, I am concerned with representing the emotional reality of that experience, with directness and intensity. There is an impulse to anesthetize this raw material in order to make it more acceptable, but I feel there is a certain dishonesty in that.
Are these people following me around now? I do know that I can never erase the memory of their mutilated bodies, and particularly the smell of blood and cordite in the air. I am always interested that people see so much of the macabre in my images. I am cut off from this. It is almost as though I were immune or perhaps I am just the messenger who doesn't know the content of his message.
Four years after returning from Vietnam, I experienced a series of hallucinations accompanied by a flood of images and sensations from that time and place. The visions of people's faces obscured by a whipped-creamlike mask were so powerful that I had to do something with them. I started drawing them as a way of giving them a more objective reality. I've been making art ever since.
Art mirrors my desire to create and destroy. For many years the technique I employed reflected this dichotomy. I would put the paint on and sand it off over and over again, until an image gradually emerged and was refined. As I worked and reworked an image, I felt that many paintings eventually became one painting, with one narrative. The idea of telling the story seems important to me, but I'm never sure just what it is.