Colored by combat 

Famous Wyoming artist got his start sketching scenes of war

By MARGARET MATRAY | Star-Tribune staff writer | Nov. 7, 2010

This story ran as part of the two-year, 105-part weekly Sunday series profiling Wyoming’s World War II veterans, “They Served with Honor.” The series was published as a book in March 2012. 

CODY — In the painting, the green man is dead.

His legs are crossed, head hung on his shoulders. Seven rifles blast through him.

He is crucified in oil on linen, against a sea of blood.

Six feet tall, “Salvatur Mundi Crucified in Betio Amnion” hangs in Harry Jackson’s Cody Museum, in a grand gallery filled with a lifetime of paintings and sculptures.

This one came much later than the others, in 2002. But it reflects upon a moment before everything else, before Jackson became the youngest Marine Corps combat artist, before he befriended Jackson Pollock, became an abstract expressionist, rediscovered realism and began sculpting.

Jackson would later call it a moment of rebirth. He was a Marine, what he considers “the most effective, psychotic sons of b— on the face of Mama Earth.”

The green man is Staff Sgt. Wesley “Whitey” Kroenung, and he died beside Jackson. They landed together at Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, in what would be considered the bloodiest battle of World War II.

‘Red Blood Wine’

Throughout his life, Jackson said, he has been reborn. Given new life at a turning point.

The first time he was 14, running away from a tumultuous family life in Chicago.

In February 1937, he saw a photo essay in Life magazine, “Winter Comes to a Wyoming Ranch.” Charles Belden’s photos of cattle winding through the snow, a coyote howling, a cowboy rescuing a calf at the Pitchfork Ranch — that’s where Jackson wanted to be.

“I said, ‘I’m going to go there someday and earn a living as a cowboy,'” Jackson said.

“And I did.”

Jackson hitchhiked to Wyoming, to the Pitchfork, and learned to cowboy, rodeo and guide hunters. He sketched what he saw: cow work on the ranch, his friends.

He said there wasn’t a decision to be made when it came to joining the Marines.

When war began, he hitchhiked back to Chicago to enlist. When his mother wouldn’t sign the papers, he waited until he turned 18 and signed up himself.

“I don’t decide anything,” he said. “I just do it.”

Throughout his tenure in the Marines, Jackson caught attention for sketches he made in the field. While training in San Diego, Jackson was reassigned to the base newspaper, drawing injured Marines. He was later introduced to Capt. Eugene McNerney, who was organizing a general intelligence unit for Maj. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith’s V Amphibious Corps.

Jackson would be a combat sketch artist, his drawings used for general intelligence. He joined the 2nd Marine Division in the attack of Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, on Nov. 20, 1943. He flew to the Pacific with McNerney, a lieutenant and Whitey Kroenung.

The assault took 76 hours and left nearly 8,000 dead.

Jackson has done the math.

Betio is just 291 acres, less than a half square mile. Compared to other WWII battles, Betio, Tarawa, was the bloodiest – high casualties in few hours in a small area.

The 19-year-old sketch artist was among the first 1,500 Marines to land, arriving under mortar fire. He called out for Whitey, the one person he knew in his landing group.

Jackson would write about this moment later. In a journal entry dated 8-25-85, which Jackson published on his website, he drew a head doused in red, the face scribbled out in black. Next to it, he wrote:

“The Blood Red Bread and

The Flesh White Wine

The Red Blood Wine and

The White Flesh Bread.”

Mortar fire hit Jackson in the back of the head and Whitey in the face. Whitey’s skull fractured next to Jackson’s right leg. He remembers looking over and seeing Whitey, hair sticking up, with no face.

Defying ‘cookie-cutter art’

Those looking for Harry Jackson’s art in a gallery will find Western pieces, sculptures mostly. But Jackson isn’t a Western artist. He’d hate for you to call him that.

Jackson never wanted to be pigeonholed, and throughout his career he continually searched for new ways to define himself.

“Anybody who doesn’t do that isn’t a godd— artist. He’s a phony,” Jackson said. “Cookie-cutter art,” he paraphrased Picasso.

Jackson returned from the Pacific, shot in the left leg twice on Saipan, and was designated a Marine combat artist.

The instructions given to combat artists were simple: Go to war, do art. The program was started by Gen. Robert Denig in 1942 as a way to keep the home front informed on what the Marine Corps did overseas. Sixty men served as Marine combat artists in WWII, and more than 100 have participated since the program’s inception, said Joan Thomas, art curator for the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va. The Marine Corps Art Collection has amassed more than 8,000 pieces, including several of Jackson’s sketches and an oil painting, “Tarawa-Betio.”

A photograph has its place, Thomas said. But Marine combat artists bring all their senses and a level of emotion to the paper. You can feel the tension of the scene, the exhaustion after battle.

“When you look at these drawings and sketches and realize these were done on the battlefield after something took place, it puts you there in the moment,” Thomas said. “You’re looking at what these artists were participating in.”

Jackson painted the Battle of Tarawa, portraits of Marines, men napping and playing cards. Even in his rough, quick sketches, Thomas said, an attention to detail is there. The feeling of the men comes through.

“… People like Harry Jackson who are good at their craft, those works become timeless.”

A young Jackson didn’t feel the emotion in his work. Something was missing. In 1944, Jackson saw a black and white reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s “The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle.” To him, it was like the blood at Betio, the fire, the entire assault. He had to meet Pollock in person.

Four years later, he made it to New York and learned from Pollock. He studied with artists Rufino Tamayo and Hans Hofmann and befriended Willem de Kooning. Jackson became known as an abstract expressionist.

And then, in 1952, he left the bright colors and bold strokes and went in the opposite direction. To Europe. To realism, inspired by a Titian painting made centuries earlier.

“That total break at a time when that was not the norm, going against the grain and doing it well – that’s Harry Jackson,” said Bruce Eldredge, director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody.

A New York Times art critic attacked Jackson’s work at the time, calling his portraits “lifeless copies” of the masters. “It is distressing when a vital young painter aligns himself with a past that can never be his,” the critic wrote.

But Jackson didn’t seek approval; he sought to find meaning in his own work.

It’s impossible to say what governs a man’s decisions. Perhaps for Jackson it was the Marine Corps mentality.

“The one thing the Marine Corps endows you with is an unflinching blind faith in your actions. How else could you lift a gun and kill another human being? You must be conditioned in a particular way that makes your voice loudest,” said one of Jackson’s sons, Jesse. “… I think we are propelled by a very deep urge to have our voice heard.”

Jackson’s life has been punctuated by intermittent explosive rage disorder and injuries of war: psychomotor seizures, grand mal epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

“That has been something which has really colored his whole career professionally since the war,” said his son Matt. “It has allowed him to do some things that he wouldn’t perhaps have done otherwise.”

In his career, Jackson created abstract expressionist, realist and Western paintings and sculptures, literally wrote the book on the ancient lost-wax method of bronze casting and revived polychrome sculpture, applying paint to the surface of his works.

Among his most well-known pieces are the “The Italian Bar” oil painting of the Genovese crime family, his 10-foot-tall painted bronze of Sacagawea, the 22-foot-tall “John Wayne: The Horseman” monument in Beverly Hills, and “Stampede” and “Range Burial,” the story of life and death in two bronzes and two large oil paintings, which Bruce Eldredge called seminal images of the American West.

Jackson’s work can be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Denver Art Museum and the Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, among others, and in the collections of the Saudi Arabian royal family, Queen Elizabeth II, Italian federal government and the Vatican.

“Harry already has a place in the pantheon of art history,” Eldredge said. “Harry has said, and I believe he is one of the world’s great artists simply because of the uniqueness of his work when such work was not commonplace.”

Return

Most men who fought in the Pacific don’t return to the sand.

For many, it’s hard enough to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Too many memories.

In 2002 and 2003, Jackson made two return trips to Betio, Tarawa, 59 years after the amphibious assault and on its 60th anniversary. His son Jesse accompanied him both times.

A psychologist prepared them for the trip, saying they had to be ready for anything. Jesse was braced for the worst, but remembered the trip as peaceful. Perhaps there was another world occurring inside of Jackson, his son said, but it didn’t show.

“As we crossed that last bridge onto Betio, we saw a big 18-inch cannon. … It’s still there,” he said. His dad took a deep breath and shuddered. “I think that was the only moment where I saw him actually let down his guard and seem actually vulnerable.”

In 2002, Jackson completed his crucifixion painting of Whitey, painted green for the color of the Marine Corps.

“It is meant to represent every warrior – not Marine, every warrior – that ever faced steel or swallowed steel in the hands of the so-called enemy,” Jackson said.

Before his first trip, a friend and 30-year combat man said he could never go back to where he fought. I’d die, he said.

“I said, ‘I got to go back, because I’m stuck there,'” Jackson said.

“And I went back. And I died and was reborn several times.”

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