Art and war may seem incompatible, but Rob Bates has made peace with such incongruities. Through diverse experiences, he has seen the beginning, middle and end of the war in Afghanistan.
Bates, 29, a UNC Charlotte illustration major, completed two tours there as a Marine and returned in December as a combat artist.
Combat art is a small, fierce field; its practitioners constitute their own band of brothers.
In this group, Bates’ star is rising. His work is in the permanent collection of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. And in February, Bates learned he earned the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s 2013 Colonel John W. Thomason Jr. Award.
“Rob is an interesting blend of things that don’t usually blend together,” says UNC Charlotte illustration professor Jamie Franki. “On one hand, he is an experienced soldier; on the other hand, he is an experienced artist. Those two realities don’t always live in the same ZIP code.”
He received the Thompson award in recognition of his military service – tours in 2004 and 2008-’09 – and his participation in what has become a defining experience for him, the Joe Bonham Project.
Founded in 2011 by noted combat artist Mike Fay, the Joe Bonham Project is named for the main character in Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war novel, “Johnny Got His Gun.” Having lost his limbs and most of his senses, Bonham communicates only by Morse code.
“He wants to be toured around the country to show America the rigors of war,” says Bates. “His wish is denied, and he’s tucked away in solitude to rot.”
The combat artists participating in the Joe Bonham Project sketch wounded soldiers undergoing rehab at military and veterans hospitals and keep them in the public eye through exhibitions and related programming – ensuring they won’t become the Joe Bonhams of their generation.
These artists can’t be pigeonholed – they range from illustrators to conceptual artists and represent different political persuasions. Some have military experience and some don’t. The project has garnered attention from military museums, the Smithsonian Institution and contemporary art spaces including the Drawing Center in New York City.
“Even though the war abroad is ending, the struggle at home will continue for our battle-wounded who are trying to cope with their new normal. We refuse to turn our backs on them,” Bates says. He has sketched at Camp Lejeune’s Wounded Warrior Barracks, National Naval Medical Center Bethesda, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other locations.
The process goes far beyond creating a likeness. “Part of the art for Rob is being able to conversationally position himself to get permission to do what he does,” says Franki. “If you were injured as a soldier and someone asked, ‘Can I draw you?’ – there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it. He does it the right way.”
On Jan. 16, public radio listeners across the country heard Bates discuss “Sketching the Drawdown,” his embed project, on American Public Media’s “The Story.” With host Dick Gordon, he talked about his experience sketching and interviewing Marines, who, instead of engaging in the combat for which they were trained, confronted frustration and boredom as the war was winding down. (WFAE’s “Charlotte Talks” also devoted its Jan. 22 program to an interview with Bates.)
The road to embedding
In August 2012, when Bates set his sights on becoming an embedded artist, he didn’t anticipate the stress that awaited.
First, he needed a letter of accreditation from a media organization. It made sense to approach “The Story,” because he had appeared on the program just a month before, discussing how his emerging talent as a combat artist helped him through bleak times during his 2008 military service.
After securing accreditation, he had to navigate a morass of paperwork, raise money to finance his embed and even supply his own body armor.
Through crowdfunding site IndieGoGo and a Facebook campaign, Bates raised $5,025, which almost covered his airfare, passport, visa, art supplies, clothing and medical and evacuation insurance.
He embedded Dec. 5-22 with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines based out of Camp Lejeune.
“I probably lost a quarter inch off my hairline and 10 pounds just trying to get everything together,” he said.
Bates was born in Maryland in 1983, when his father was stationed at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Bates joined the Marines after his 2001 graduation from high school in Pennsylvania.
Although interested in art since early childhood, he began his career in combat art by chance, when he was asked to do landscape sketches in Afghanistan for strategic purposes. In 2005, he left the Marines, moving to Concord to be near his wife’s family.
The tattered economy drove Bates back to the Marines and Afghanistan in 2008. This time he took his sketchbook. “I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I was more or less documenting the human experience of war and day-to-day life – how days just drag on.”
Emboldened by the interest his work was generating, Bates sent his portfolio to Fay, a combat artist for the Marine Corps Museum who also embedded for The New York Times.
Fay often hears from aspiring combat artists, but Bates stood out for his raw talent and willingness to be critiqued. “I was immediately struck by his almost-too-much talent,” Fay says. He encouraged Bates to loosen up – to step away from his photorealistic style and let his own presence show through.
Fay invited Bates to become part of the Joe Bonham Project – to accompany him and other artists to sketch soldiers in rehab and exhibit around the country.
As part of his involvement, Bates organized an exhibition at UNC Charlotte in May 2012. The project returns to Charlotte April 12-24 as part of Central Piedmont Community College’s Sensoria Festival.
Bates considers Fay his mentor. It was Fay’s encouragement and help that landed his work in the Marine Corps museum’s permanent collection.
“I liked his observational work,” says Fay. “That was what the museum is looking for – not the heroic stuff, not the Iwo Jima flag raising.”
A visit to Bates’ blog ( rb-portraits.com) reveals work ranging from casual sketches of acquaintances and family to photorealistic portraits of dead soldiers.
Wounded warrior drawings such as “Corporal Mathew Bowman at Walter Reed” and “Specialist Eric Hunter at Walter Reed” are typical of his work for the Joe Bonham Project. They pack a wallop because they are raw and unsentimental.
Among his many embed drawings are images of Marines and contractors at work and rest, Afghan officials and desert scenery punctuated by tents, vehicles and other accouterments of war.
“Flight Line” depicts Blackhawk helicopters on the desert. “The Blackhawks are a very important part of the war,” he notes. “We take them to the fight and bring them back when they’re injured.”
The writing accompanying these embed drawings is detailed, sprinkled with mordant humor and sometimes blunt observations.
What becomes of a combat artist when a war ends?
When Bates completes his studies, he hopes to teach. He says his combat art experiences will remain an active part of his identity.
“There will always be wars for good and for evil,” says Bates. “Combat artists will exist as long as history continues to repeat itself.”