MAKING A SOLDIER, MOLDING A SCULPTOR*
by Ken Hruby
*This essay was included, in part, in A Matter of Choice: 25 People Who Transformed Their Lives,
Joan Chatfield-Taylor, editor, Seal Press, 2004
It was a great start to an art career. "Mustering Out", my first solo sculpture show, was described by the Boston Globe art critic as "poignant and provocative", "...neither rancorous nor therapeutic...far more effective than the most blaring protest art." The review was the sort of response I had hoped for and, since the show was the culmination of five years of study of the visual arts, it served as a demarcation point in my transformation from being a professional soldier to being a professional artist. The critical acclaim was legitimizing and affirming. It was also pretty heady stuff for a rank beginner, but it was now official; I was an "erstwhile combat soldier, now an artist".
This transition was easier than the first - the one that molded an officer and a gentleman out of a strapping pubescent a quarter century earlier. That earlier change took four years, with the most intensive pressure in the first two months during what was known as "Beast Barracks". It was a highly focused basic training designed to weed out those who were not suited, for whatever reason, to "close with and destroy the enemy", the mission of the infantry soldier. We all had to pass this extended physical and psychological stress test before we could get on with the academic challenges of the next four years at West Point. They trained us in the most primal way to kill the enemy. Kill or be killed they told us.
Survival motivation was at the base of the hierarchy of human needs. Because my own survival then, as a cadet and, perhaps later in combat, depended on how well I learned my lessons, techniques, and maneuvers, the basic combat training moves were embossed in my muscles - "deep learning", as Dr. Jonathan Shay describes it in Achilles in Vietnam, so that the drill could be conjured up, without misstep, decades after it was hammered home. Repetition was key. So, with the rest of my class, I growled and grunted my way through the bayonet and unarmed combat pits until I was hoarse and muscle-weary. Caked with sweat and sawdust and with well honed bayonets fixed to our rifles we ran through the prescribed course to charge, thrust, parry, lunge, recover, slash and lunge again at the sandbag surrogates. With grunts and growls we cheered each other on, convinced that we would be invincible on the battlefield when the call came to "fix bayonets". After I insulated myself emotionally from the brutality of the drill's ultimate intent, and physically transcended the pain, I found that it actually felt good to run the course and run it well; there was a very real physical beauty to the movements when the steps and the rhythm were done right. The steps were the key to a smooth execution; done correctly, the upper body followed the feet in a gracefully coordinated flow of motion; a brutal ballet.
A quarter century later I wanted to create rather than destroy.
From the time I stepped through the double red doors of the school it was obvious that I was entering the antithesis of military life. The paucity of structure, the vague program objectives and a permissive aura that was counter to all of my engineering training. I was a student again, no longer a leader or a supervisor, just one of the class of curious, eager newcomers most of them younger than my children. My classmates devoted a lot of energy towards looking like artists. Olive drab fatigues and rank insignia were replaced by another uniform of sorts: all black clothing beneath blue and purple hair accented by a myriad mostly visible tattoos and piercing. I had learned to weld years before while posted in Central Texas and I was a competent carpenter and mechanic, so I had come to this new world of art school with journeyman skills and a whole lot of preconceptions about art. My young classmates brought neither the skills nor the baggage to class. They were open vessels eager to be filled. They were creative, accepting, experimental and non-judgmental about contemporary art. I was not.
Iinitially baffled, continually intrigued and ultimately naturalized in this new world, I would return from school trips to New York, unable to sleep for two or three night, my head was spinning with visual imagery that I had seen in the galleries and museums of SOHO or TRIBECA. Military and art training did have one thing in common, at least for a mature student : a sense of urgency, so much to learn and so little time. My training in the army put an emphasis on observation. I was taught how to observe and report what I saw. The poet Henry Reed described the process in his poem, "The Lessons of War", to which I had been exposed in my Freshman English class at West Point. It was an example of what I wanted to achieve in a visual forum. Reed played with the reader and infused double-entendres throughout the piece as he described the basic training process for his British compatriots:
Judging Judging Distances from The Lessons of War
by Henry Reed ...
Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
Is very important. Perhaps you may never get
The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
How to report on a landscape: the central sector,
The right of arc and that, which we had last Tuesday,
And at least you know ...
A barn is not called a barn, to put it more plainly,
Or a field in the distance, where sheep may be safely grazing.
You must never be over-sure. You must say, when reporting:
At five o'clock in the central sector is a dozen
Of what appear to be animals; whatever you do
Don't call the bleeders sheep. ...
The still white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat,
And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
Lie gently together. Which is, perhaps, only to say
That there is a row of houses to the left of arc,
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
Appear to be loving.
Here was poetry about the tedious process of learning a fundamental military skill, observing and reporting, and doing it the army way. I was impressed by the way Reed allowed for interpretation and maneuver on the part of the reader and it was something that I tried to emulate in my sculpture. Learning to observe in the army was linked to learning to see in art school. The difference was that, in the field, you reported what you observed to your superiors and in the art world you internalized it and stowed in in your personal bank of visual references. One of the art school axioms was, "God lies in the details" and with that council, I began to look at everything with a new and more critical eye. I inspected everything. Sculpture, paintings, architecture, appliances, tools, furniture and anything else that came to view. I examined how they were put together, how the transitions between materials were handled, how those materials worked physically and conceptually together and I noted what did and what did not work visually. This was the basic training of art school.
As our palette of technical skills developed as students, it became a matter of personal choice what we chose to say in this new visual language. Initially I chose to speak in the dialect of abstraction with a heavy welded steel accent. It was safe ground for me. What mattered in my dialogue with the viewer were formal issues: form, balance, contrast, rhythm, and surface texture. It was a luxury to focus on the pure pleasure of forming, forging, cutting and joining mild steel into objects that left the viewer in wonder. The process was mesmerizing. I would rush to the school welding shop and let the process swallow me up -- on occasion I would have a vague idea of what I wanted to create, normally not - indulging my fantasies in three-dimensional form and letting the muses guide me toward visual poetry. I had learned the visual scales well enough to not only play the tune, but to improvise. For a long time, I worked without hidden meanings or content: -it was pure escape from the news of the day and the events of my past career. In the studio I experienced a form of transcendence that lifted me away from the heat of the forge, above my tired feet and apart from my thirst and hunger, in the artist's version of the jogger's high.
Then I went to see Oliver Stone's "Platoon".
It was a flawed film, as I discovered on subsequent examination, but the first viewing had a profound effect on me. It was the first of the Vietnam-war films that was remotely close to my experiences there. My tour had many more shades of gray and little of the clear black and white that Stone's protagonists projected in their portrayals of the forces of good and evil, but the movie addressed some of my emotional conflicts and served as a catharsis. The film gave me permission to reexamine the experiences of Vietnam and Korea and the whole twenty-one year career in the infantry and further, the tenuous relationship between soldier and society. That reexamination gave me a voice that had been repressed for decades and was ready to speak out in a new-found vocabulary.
And speak out it did. In the next eight months the work spilled out of my studio. It covered the floors and the walls. I completed nearly two dozen works in the eight months between the time I had seen Platoon and the school's annual Traveling Scholar's Exhibition and Competition. In place of abstraction was a point of view, a statement about this military experience that was then, and still is, so exotic and arcane to most civilians. I transformed familiar icons of the military into ironic, unexpected statements about the military experience.
The first piece, for instance, was a transformation of the dog tags. We always wore them when we were at risk - in combat, during field exercises, while flying military aircraft or jumping from them. My daughter would hide them from me, with the hopeful thought that if I did not have them, I would not have to deploy with my airborne unit when the alert call came in the middle of the night. The tags came to represent the burden that we had to carry; the personal risk, the constant disruption of family life and the months and years of separation. They came in pairs; one hung from a long ball chain around the neck, the other from a smaller chain, just big enough to encircle the big toe, dangled from the same necklace. The transformation came by changing the scale from one inch in length to ten inches and fabricating them out of on half inch steel stock, etched with my personal data and then obtaining industrial ball chain to match the scale change. They weighed six pounds each and had a commanding presence.
Ideas for work came from my memories which remained hidden just beneath the surface of consciousness, like mines laid in a rice paddy, ready to explode and echo across the decades when the right pressure was applied. Just what it was that tripped them remains a mystery; sometimes a sound, occasionally a word, usually a smell. I began to look back at the full breadth of my military experiences with a new eye and saw in them a series of ironies that I wanted to explore in sculptural format. As I looked back at the basic training we went through at West Point I was reminded that, in addition to bayonet and rifle-marksmanship training, we were given ballroom dance lessons. As hard as it was to believe at the time, dance lessons were integrated into our training schedule as we struggled to shed our civilian skins and don the gray of new cadets. There was much to learn in the four years it would require to mold us into officers and the sage planners considered dancing an essential skill. Imported up the Hudson River from New York City, instructors from the Arthur Murray Dance Studio came to teach us fledgling leaders the fine art of ballroom dancing. The instructors were usually attractive young women and my most vivid recollection is not how fine they looked but how good they smelled. Twenty years before the admission of women as cadets and thus with no choice in the matter, we men danced with each other during these lessons, taking turns, of course, at leading. Effective leaders must first learn to follow, we were told, but this put a new twist on that leadership axiom. Cullem Hall, where all this social honing took place, was the most formal of formal function halls. Our steps and turns, our skips and twirls were done under the stern stares of famous graduates and former dancers, all heroes for one reason or another, all frozen in bronze bas-reliefs hanging on every wall. When our lessons in social graces and civility were completed for the day, we marched, double time, back to the barracks to change into fatigues to assemble minutes later for bayonet drill where the instructors smelled more like we did. As a class we learned, often in the same steamy afternoon, the vertical butt-stroke series and the tango, the high-port cross-over and the cha-cha-cha. Brutality and civility. We were expected to show equal finesse in both arenas.
Bayonet drill and dance lessons, the last resort in combat and the first skirmish in the battle of the sexes, use the same choreographic notation. The irony in the circularity in our movements from the muddiest bayonet pit to the most formal dance hall escaped us at the time. We new cadets were too close to the events to look back at our foot prints with any objectivity. But like it or not, during that sultry eight week period of "Beast Barracks" of 1957, there was imprinted within us forever, the feet of a dancer and the hands of a fighter, more or less under control.
"Fix Bayonets, Let's Dance" was a sculpture installation that evolved directly from the new cadet training schedule and the irony of this strange juxtaposition of lessons. I fabricated a circle of shoe and boot prints that were made of parquet squares and cement globs. In the parquet I had carved the precise male dance notations of a waltz and in the muddy cement I had pressed boot prints in the step notation for the vertical butt-stroke series. The steps of each lesson melded into each other. Above the circle of steps I suspended two photographs back-to-back which had appeared in Life magazine just after the basic training had been completed: one showed two cadets dancing together in an exaggerated state of mock ecstasy, the other a growling classmate fiercely attacking the bayonet course. The photographs spun slowly as the viewer mentally conjured up the dancer and fighter carefully stepping through his marks in unending counter-clockwise circles and continuous transformations between the two diverse roles.
The challenge of this form of autobiographical work was to interpret these experiences visually without resorting to pontificating pedantics, to engage in a visual dialogue and to provide ambiguity in each effort that allowed room for interpretation by the viewer. Underlying the entire body of work was a quiet anti-war message, dampened by wry humor and subtle ironies.
Paul Fussell, the historian and WWII veteran observed in his book, "Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War" that there was a distinct difference between soldiers' diary entries and soldiers' memoirs and that the distinction was similar to looking at the sun at high noon and at sunset; the former tended to be raw and harsh while the latter were filtered by time and a mellowed perspective. This body of work fell into the camp of memoirs, most of it done nearly twenty years after my last combat tour, and it had little of the angst that I had seen in work done by veterans immediately after mustering out of the military. It had a mellow poetry about it that I was comfortable with and the critical acclaim affirmed that.
My wars are behind me now, so far as I know. I now look to the muses and not to Mars for inspiration. I spent twenty-one years as an officer and have spent twenty as an artist. With a memory that appears to have a finite capacity, details of those exotic combat experiences fade as years log on. I never did and do not now hold romantic notions about going off to war; it was mostly dull and boring, with interminable periods of waiting and inactivity, accented by brief flashes of terror and frantic action. Making art has much the same cycle. It involves a lot of research, experimentation, documentation, and administration. The actual fabrication is normally brief and frantic, albiet less lethal but relies heavily on the schooling I received.
This fundamental, "basic", training is strong stuff. It lasts a life-time. I was returned to "jump status" as a paratrooper fourteen years after I had finished qualifying for basic airborne training. It was not the same body then that had been so finely tuned at age twenty-two, but when the "go" light flashed green at the exit door of the C-123 troop transport and the jump master tapped me on the butt, I leaped into the slip stream without a second thought; the body knew exactly what to do and it responded perfectly. It must have been excellent training that motivated a sane person to jump from a perfectly good aircraft. When I attempted to translate the bizarre experience of dance lessons and bayonet drill into the "Fix Bayonets, Let's Dance" installation, the same intense training allowed me to waltz and stomp around my studio to get the steps right, with a broom stick alternating as partner and weapon. It did not take long before I had retraced the three-quarter step and twirl. The horizontal butt-stroke series took longer. Fortunately, I have had more occasions for dancing than for fighting in the ensuing years since the steps were burned into my soul.