Military art project honors Marine Corps
CAMP RIPLEY—Oil paint, Belgian linen canvas and the black volcanic sands of Mount Suribachi.
That and time, artist Charles Kapsner said, were the components needed for a painting mounted Tuesday, May 22, in the Committal Hall located at the heart of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery near Camp Ripley—an 8-by-10-foot panorama of people and events captured in vignettes. It encapsulates the history of the U.S. Marine Corps, ranging from the Corps' birthplace at Tun Tavern, Philadelphia, on Nov. 10, 1775, to the present day—the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and beyond.
"Each branch of service has its own history and traditions," Jim Kostek said during a phone interview. Kostek is a member of the Marine Corps League and an avid historian of the Corps—a history and culture distinct to each branch, he noted, which art serves to illuminate. "Whether in peacetime or war time, that's their history."
The painting is slated to be unveiled and dedicated at a ceremony at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26, in the Committal Hall's rotunda.
The Marine painting is the latest installment in a multi-year art project by Kapsner to honor the five branches of the U.S. military—five oil paintings depicting the histories, people and places of the Army (2011), Navy (2014) and Coast Guard (2016), now the Marines (2018), with sketches ready for an Air Force painting to be completed at a future date.
"We use symbolism, an object or a couple words to talk about a time frame because it's pretty much impossible—looking at a painting like this—to capture every event known to man regarding the Marine Corps," Kapsner said, standing before the enormous painting as aides prepared the housings for it to be lifted and mounted.
Each person and event portrayed is designed to lead into the next, Kapsner said, a technique
intended to gather disparate events and portray them in a cohesive manner, but also to illustrate the continuity of an institution and culture that's been a mainstay of Americana for 242 years.
By viewing the painting—and taking special care to study every little detail—one is able to take something of a journey, from Tun Tavern to nautical battles on Lake Erie during the War of 1812; the taking of the castle Chapultepec, Mexico City, during the Mexican-American War; then uprisings shortly before the Civil War and engagements therein; and the Battle of Belleau Wood in World War I—in which more marines died than in the entirety of the Corps' 143-year history up to that point.
Kapsner said he was aiming for authenticity and often turned to the most authentic sources possible—uniforms lent by museums, which he used to study in different lights and position for his painting, as well as volcanic soil taken from the island of Iwo Jima.
Kapsner mixed this soil into his depiction of the iconic "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," one of the seminal moments of World War II and the history of the Marine Corps. The image has a distinctly grainy and textured quality.
From there, Kapsner painted an image depicting the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, a flashpoint in the Korean War and some of the coldest conditions Marines faced since Valley Forge.
Much of the painting is dominated by images of the Vietnam War—prominently tall, encumbered soldiers hoisting their packs and weapons as they waded waist-deep through a swamp; along with images of the landing at Da Nang and a tiny little pair of caricatures depicting a WWII medic tending to a Vietnam War soldier.
These images capture a particularly dark period for the Marine Corps and other veterans of the Vietnam War, demonized and ostracized for their involvement in the conflict, Kapsner said—a point in the past, still fresh in the minds of many, he noted, that needs to be addressed.
"We're going to give a big presence of honor to them ... we're talking about the healing process that needs to go on between these generations," Kapsner said. "That is how you can use little tidbits and symbolic elements to talk about what's going in all of these—knowing that each branch has its own culture and its own elements that are important to them."
In addition, Kapsner drew attention to the lives and exploits of individual service members—not the least of which was Lewis "Chesty" Puller, the most decorated Marine in the Corps' history—but also a Marine in combat gear, a female aviator in a gray jumpsuit, as well as a lieutenant colonel and a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in blue mess uniforms. Kapsner noted Native Americans have the highest percentage of participants in the U.S. military of any ethnic group.
Lastly, Kapsner pointed out the skeletal remains of a fallen soldier, half-submerged in the dirt, to represent the unaccounted soldiers who remain missing in action, as well as a pistol on the ground next to an unused round—representative, he said, of the high suicide rate among veterans and his desire they "bury the gun and not themselves."
As a veteran of combat named Corey once told Kapsner, the experiences of a Marine, or any serviceperson in war, is a profound one that stays with the recipient forever.
"None of this leaves," Kapsner said Corey told him. "You take the good, the bad and the ugly. It's always there and it's always with you."