News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
The art of war: Local man draws from life experiences as a combat artist
BY LIANA BAYNE
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
The Gallery at 915 is hosting a show this month that mixes war with art.
As the featured artist, Michael Fay is showcasing his thesis project from his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
The project centers on his children’s book, “The Boy Who Drew Soldiers,” about a young combat artist in the British army during World War I.
It’s based loosely on Fay’s own life. Fay worked as an official artist for the Marine Corps from 2000 until 2009.
“People say, ‘What does war have to do with art?’ And I say, ‘How many classic pieces of art have to do with war?’” Fay said.
LESSONS IN HISTORY
“The Boy Who Drew Soldiers” is a coming-of-age story that follows a boy who romanticizes war at first, but then after experiencing World War I, takes a much more realistic perspective. The book is the first component of Fay’s thesis project.
Fay chose to write about a combat artist because he was one himself. He spent time all over the Middle East, primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“My adviser said to me, ‘As one of the small handful of war artists, you’re qualified to do a book on war,’” Fay said.
While the novel is historical fiction, Fay engaged in almost two years of research to make sure it’s rooted in facts.
That research constitutes most of his thesis paper, the second component. It also backed up facts in his book.
Fay read many memoirs of World War I soldiers, specifically of combat artists. He also read several books on British war art.
He took his research a step further and jumped into the battle with the Great War Association in Newville, Penn. The group performs realistic re-enactments, Fay said. He was able to take photographs and have re-enactors model for him to help with his character drawings.
The group doesn’t allow people to participate without playing a part, so Fay got into a British uniform and went to one of their events as a combat artist.
“I lived the life and embedded with them,” he said, much as he embedded with Marines in wartime.
The book’s illustrations make up the third component of the thesis project. With an undergraduate degree in art education, Fay tried to incorporate some educational psychology knowledge into his book.
“The essential theme is empathy,” he said.
Children 8 to 12—the book’s target audience—are at the stage where they’re learning about empathy, Fay said.
The young protagonist learns to feel empathy for his enemy, the Germans, as he sees that those soldiers are much like him.
Fay hopes this lesson will help popularize his book with teachers. As the 100-year anniversary of World War I approaches in 2014, he hopes they will include “The Boy Who Drew Soldiers” in the classroom while studying the war.
‘I WAS A TERRIBLE ART STUDENT’
Fay never thought he would hold the title of combat artist. Although he knew he was talented as a youngster, when he went to art school, “I lost my mind. I was a terrible art student,” he said.
Fay tried and dropped out of three art schools. Then he joined the Marines, serving from 1975 until 1978.
He went back to Penn State and got a degree in art education.
“I thought I was being pragmatic,” he said.
When the 1982 recession made teaching jobs scarce, Fay turned again to the Marines. The second time he served, Fay worked on helicopter avionics from 1984 until 1994.
That’s what brought him to the Fredericksburg area. He was stationed at Quantico, working on the presidential fleet of helicopters.
Fay traveled to the Middle East during Desert Storm and to Somalia to work on helicopter avionics. And because Fay had never really given up art, he took sketchbooks with him.
“I would just sketch what I saw,” he said.
In 1993, he was stationed in North Carolina and entered three drawings into an art competition at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington.
“I put three pieces in and I won first, second and honorable mention,” he said.
That sweep made Fay realize how much he missed art.
A STROKE OF FATE
In 1994, his second tour with the Marines was over. He moved to Fredericksburg, made rustic twig furniture and worked for Geico.
Fay met Lt. Col. Donna Neary, who was a previous Marine Corps official artist, painting in a gallery in downtown Fredericksburg. After talking with Neary, who was about to retire, Fay suddenly found himself interviewing for the position. He got the job.
“I could not have planned this at all,” he said.
His works are now on display in the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico as well as several other museums and in textbooks.
As a project after retiring in 2009, Fay traveled to veterans’ hospitals and sketched recovering wounded soldiers.
A few sketches from those visits are also featured in the Gallery at 915 exhibit. Fay is enthusiastic about continuing to create art.
“The calling of an artist can produce either a blessing or a curse,” he said. “In my case, I’ve been blessed.”
WANT TO GO?
What: “The Boy Who Drew Soldiers” features illustrations by former U.S. Marine combat and war artist Michael Fay.
Where:The Gallery at 915, 915 Lafayette Blvd., Fredericksburg
When: Through August
Michael Fay’s blog: mdfay1.blogspot.com
Liana Bayne: 540/374-5000