Society of Illustrators visits U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center

By By Mr. Greg Hannon | U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Registrar and Historian | May 29, 2012

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. — "Receiving and looking at a digital photo sent to you electronically today is almost something you do as an afterthought, but there is something timeless and enduring about looking at a painting on canvas," said artist John Witt as he discussed his nearly-five decade-long involvement with bringing the sacrifice and service of American military members to life on canvas.

Witt led a delegation of six artists from the Society of Illustrators during a visit to the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center May 19.

Witt is no stranger to the U.S. military. He served as a combat artist starting in 1966 during the Vietnam War, where he came under direct sniper fire on at least two occasions while embedded with U.S. forces. He has been personally commissioned for over 200 works of art for all branches of the armed forces, including over 50 for the U.S. Air Force alone.

The Museum of American Illustration was established in 1981 during Witt's tenure as president of the society. Today the society's permanent collection in New York City includes over 2,500 works by such legendary artists as Norman Rockwell, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, Bob Peak, Bernie Fuchs and Brad Holland. Witt has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, where he has sketched and painted members of the EC and other Air Force personnel who have received training here.

Members of the 421st Combat Training Squadron took time to pose and meet with the delegation for sketches and photographs which will serve as the artists' inspiration for future Air Force art projects. Composition of the new paintings will begin almost immediately. Witt said he plans to have some of the new artwork ready to display October during the annual Air Force Art showcase in October. The Secretary of the Air Force is schedule to attend the showcase at the National Museum of the United States Air Force located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The Society of Illustrators began Feb. 1, 1901, with nine artists and one businessman founding the organization with the following credo: "The object of the society shall be to promote generally the art of illustration and to hold exhibitions from time to time."

The society has held to this simple concept for 111 years, but their roots in supporting the U.S. military go much deeper. Charles Dana Gibson, a prominent artist who served as president of the society for a time, was called upon by the U.S. Government during World War I to generate posters to recruit soldiers and generate public support. He enlisted James Montgomery Flagg, N.C. Wyeth and Joseph Pennell; artists who would produce some of the war's most lasting imagery. One of the most famous of these is the "I Want You" poster, commissioned by James Flagg using a modified version of his own face for the likeness of Uncle Sam.

In a time before widespread use of journalistic photography, eight society members were commissioned by the U.S. Army and sent to France to sketch their impressions of the war.
The artists helped operate the School for Disabled Soldiers following the armistice of 1918., the society's contribution mirrored the intensity of the nation's massive war effort during World War II. They participated in morale and recruiting poster campaigns and created illustrations depicting scenes of the war in both Europe and the Pacific. They also participated in a program whereby illustrators visited veterans' hospitals to sketch the wounded. These portraits were then sent on to the subjects' families as morale boosters.

Illustrators were given the opportunity in 1954, as part of the U.S. Air Force Art Program to travel the world to military facilities and exercises to record these events and donate their works to a grateful nation. Hundreds of works of art have been produced Since that time that immortalize the service of our men and women in uniform.

The EC currently houses a very large and varied collection of Air Force art totaling 80 pieces. The newly commissioned works will go on display at various venues throughout the country. Some of them will make their way back to the EC to be displayed here as their permanent "home." Witt has painted several of the artworks that are now in the EC collection, including the large work titled "Airpower from the Ground Up" that is currently on display at the entrance to the center. Witt also recently completed a new painting depicting staff sergeants Phillip Peterkins and Kyle Miller of the 421st CTS who posed for sketches in November.

The six artists were able to photograph and sketch members of the EC participating in demonstrations showcasing their skills and training. These included a military working dog presentation hosted by Master Sgt. William Gaskins accompanied by his dog, 'Jumpy.' Other 421st CTS participants put on a textbook exposition of the unique training the EC offers. The members posed next to a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle and demonstrated life saving techniques and perimeter defense while wearing full combat gear. Participants included staff sergeants Brandon Koehne, Maurice Johnson, Quentin Humphries, technical sergeants Jeffrey Cadogan, Lallchan Seunarine, Stephen Smith and Master Sgt. Keith Tartaglia. Co-organizer of the event was Tech. Sgt. Erica Boylen, whose tireless efforts were not lost on the contingent of illustrators.

A finale to the day's agenda was marked by a hand-to-hand combat demonstration in the EC's "Redman" room and a tour of the EC armory. The artists were also able to fly on a KC-10 Extender the following Sunday, courtesy of the 514th Air Mobility Wing. The team sketched, photographed and drew inspiration from the Airman throughout their visit; all of which, once compiled, would to serve as the basis for future paintings that today only exist within the mind of each artist. Soon, however, that inspiration will be combined with canvas, acrylics and watercolor to become framed artworks that will live on long after the members' assignments, deployments, careers and retirements.
Contact the EC Public Affairs Office at (609) 754-7013 for more information.