Art and war may seem incompatible, but Rob Bates has made peace with such incongruities. Through diverse experiences, he has seen the beginning, middle and end of the war in Afghanistan.
Bates, 29, a UNC-Charlotte illustration major, completed two tours there as a Marine and returned in December as a combat artist.
Combat art is a small, fierce field; its practitioners constitute their own band of brothers.
In this group, Bates’ star is rising. His work is in the permanent collection of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. And in February, Bates won the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s 2013 Colonel John W. Thomason Jr. Award.
“Rob is an interesting blend of things that don’t usually blend together,” says UNC-Charlotte illustration professor Jamie Franki. “On one hand, he is an experienced soldier; on the other hand, he is an experienced artist. Those two realities don’t always live in the same ZIP code.”
He received the Thompson award in recognition of his military service – tours in 2004 and 2008-’09 – and his participation in the Joe Bonham Project.
Founded in 2011 by noted combat artist Mike Fay, the Joe Bonham Project is named for the main character in Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war novel, “Johnny Got His Gun.” Having lost his limbs and most of his senses, Bonham communicates only by Morse code.
“He wants to be toured around the country to show America the rigors of war,” says Bates. “His wish is denied, and he’s tucked away in solitude to rot.”
The combat artists participating in the Joe Bonham Project sketch wounded soldiers undergoing rehab and keep them in the public eye through exhibits and related programming.
The project has garnered attention from military museums, the Smithsonian Institution and contemporary art spaces including the Drawing Center in New York City.
“Even though the war abroad is ending, the struggle at home will continue for our battle-wounded who are trying to cope with their new normal. We refuse to turn our backs on them,” Bates says. He has sketched at Camp Lejeune’s Wounded Warrior Barracks and other locations.
Public radio listeners across the country recently heard Bates discuss “Sketching the Drawdown,” his embed project, on American Public Media’s “The Story.” With host Dick Gordon, he talked about his experience sketching and interviewing Marines, who, instead of engaging in the combat for which they were trained, confronted frustration and boredom as the war was winding down.
The road to embedding
In August 2012, when Bates set his sights on becoming an embedded artist, he didn’t anticipate the stress that awaited.
First, he needed a letter of accreditation from a media organization. It made sense to approach “The Story,” because he appeared on the program just a month before, discussing how being a combat artist helped him through bleak times during his 2008 military service.
After securing accreditation, he had to navigate a morass of paperwork, raise money to finance his embed and even supply his own body armor.
He embedded Dec. 5-22 with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines based out of Camp Lejeune.
Bates was born in Maryland in 1983, when his father was stationed at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Bates joined the Marines after his 2001 graduation from high school in Pennsylvania.
Although interested in art since childhood, he began his career in combat art by chance, when he was asked to do landscape sketches in Afghanistan for strategic purposes. In 2005, he left the Marines and moved to Concord to be near his wife’s family.
The economy drove him back to the Marines and Afghanistan in 2008, this time with a sketchbook. “I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I was more or less documenting the human experience of war and day-to-day life.”
Emboldened by the interest his work was generating, Bates sent his portfolio to Fay, a combat artist for the Marine Corps Museum who also embedded for The New York Times.
Fay invited Bates to become part of the Joe Bonham Project – to accompany him and other artists to sketch soldiers in rehab and exhibit around the country.
As part of his involvement, Bates organized an exhibition at UNC-Charlotte in May 2012. The project returns to Charlotte April 12-24 as part of Central Piedmont Community College’s Sensoria Festival.
A visit to Bates’ blog ( rb-portraits.com) reveals work ranging from casual sketches of acquaintances and family to photorealistic portraits of dead soldiers.
Among his many embed drawings are images of Marines and contractors at work and rest, Afghan officials and desert scenery punctuated by tents, vehicles and other accouterments of war.
The writing accompanying these embed drawings is detailed, sprinkled with mordant humor and sometimes blunt observations.
When Bates completes his studies, he hopes to teach. He says his combat art experiences will remain an active part of his identity.
“There will always be wars … for good and for evil,” says Bates. “Combat artists will exist as long as history continues to repeat itself.”