A Man, An Artist, A Painting

With thanks to Prometheus Dreaming, for publishing this essay in September, 2020.

https://www.prometheusdreaming.com/a-man-an-artist-a-painting

My assignment: Create an oil painting of the Port of Pusan, Korea, 1950-1953, for the Army Transportation Corps. Final product to be displayed in the Fort Eustis Army transportation museum. Commemorative posters to be sold at a cocktail party and unveiling.

My resources: Transportation library, transportation museum, Internet, public library, stationary ship rigging on base, interviews. An entire war history at my fingertips—a military goldmine! Not.

Photocopies are various undecipherable shades of gray, scenes distant, nondescript. Figures and vehicles miniscule. I scour the library, rows of history on WWI, WWII and Vietnam. This is why the Korean War earned the nickname “The Forgotten War”: a mere seven books line the shelf. Only one contains photos.

The Army wants to help. But these men—too young to have served in Korea—need direction. They call the venerable General Fuson. He was there – in Korea. He is a god. The men sigh, gesture erratically, pace like chipmunks on methamphetamines. They speak of no one else. They frown at my sketches, mutter vague comments.  Their attitude disturbs me—these privates, colonels, majors. “General Fuson this, General Fuson that.”

I don’t know much about the military. I read military time only slightly faster than Roman numerals, which means that by the time I’ve figured it out, my lunch date has come and gone without me. I don’t even have ranks memorized. All I’m interested in is whether I’ve used the correct color green in the right hand corner, the perspective is right, the paint is dry on time and the canvas is of archival quality.

I feel my eyebrows rise when I locate the general’s image in reference books. Awed, pleased, I flip pages and notice the parallel progression of age and rank as the page numbers advance. I should be nervous. How am I to illustrate in a single painting the fact that by the end of 1952, 10 million tons of cargo had moved through the Port of Pusan? My solution is representational: a portion of cargo, a small segment of the transportation corps. The men want to show it all. I cringe.

We will meet the general in one month.

Sketches. Meetings. Gestures. Pacing. Angst. Two weeks.

Phone calls. Last minute changes. One week.

From a towering height, the mighty general will overshadow me, block the door with his square shoulders, glare down his nose and dismiss me in a gravelly George C. Scott/General Patton voice. His presence will reduce me to a jellied 16th century artisan peasant. Who am I, a coddled, indulged artist, to recreate his war experience? The entire transportation corps’ Korean War experience?

Will the general insist on changing every pencil line? Will the accuracy of his recall interfere with my design sense? What if he vetoes the whole thing?

Today: I will meet General Fuson. I have planned my schedule to the nanosecond. I will arrive 15 minutes early, relax, review my sketches.

But weeks of agitating comments have chipped away my composure. I awaken with a headache and sense of spaciness, as though I have overdosed on antihistamines—or perhaps just hyperventilated. I drop pens, keys, my notebook. I walk into a chair, bruise my hip. I use my good hip to hold open the screen door. I swivel awkwardly, keys in one hand, portfolio gripped in the other, and attempt to pull the door shut. The dog shoots out beneath me, homing in on a squirrel. I chase the dog, scrape my leg on a rose bush. My high heels sink into the mud. I limp back to the house, lock up the dog, wipe off the blood, and take a swipe at my shoes with a paper towel. Now, I will be late. The general will banish my painting to a novelty wholesaler and my artwork will end up at a starving artist sale at Motel 6. My career is pureed.

I try calming myself with soothing nature music in my car. But a thunderstorm and irritating little crickets mating to a synthesized flute exacerbates my mood. My mind darts ahead. Should I salute? No, I am a civilian. Besides, the general is retired. I will shake hands, as any normal businessperson.

I arrive on base. “Wait outside the meeting room,” I am told. I pace. What if I misread the photos? Turned a wheel cover into a luggage rack? A pile of netting into a storage box? An Army insignia into an insect? Of course, that is why I am here. This is no different than working with an art director at an agency. Corrections are the only way to ensure the proper outcome. Besides, these aren’t corrections. They’re instructions. Constructions.

The door opens. Two uniformed men and a woman, alongside whom I have worked for several weeks, escort me. My heel catches on the carpet. My portfolio flares sideways, blocking the door. Like a canoe paddle, I turn it sideways, slice through the space. Four men await us. They are chatting, their backs turned. I open my portfolio, spread my drafts on the highly glossed table. Behind my shoulders, I hear, “Sir, this is our artist.” The moment has arrived. I straighten, pivot, and extend my hand in greeting.

Revelation, epiphany, shock—no word can accurately describe the image before me. Now I know what people mean when they say that time stands still. It not only stands still, it turns in on itself, launches shards of light, ignites my sleepy synapses. Here before me looms no five-star general, no growling Patton, no hulking, crew-cut mammoth studded with rows of medals, stripes and bars.

Before me smiles a charming, diminutive, silver-haired gentleman with an unmistakable air of humility. We are nearly equal in height. His silken hair is perfectly combed. His eyes twinkle. His palm is smooth and firm in our handshake. He wears hearing aids.

I long to sit with a cup of tea, take him aside for a chat in a wingback chair. But the men have made me wary. The critique begins.

“Sir,” commences one of the soldiers, “is it correct to bring in the ship from this side? And have we placed these hills properly in the background? And what about lining up the trucks like this? The tracks down the center, Sir?”

The general pauses. Slowly, with much care, he replies, “We had a huge storage area, a building that took up almost the entire pier. I don’t know how it looks now. Why don’t you ask someone who has been there recently?”

The soldier clears his throat. “Sir, we need to know what it looked like then. When you were there. Is this the way you remember it, Sir? Should these cranes be here? What about the tracks? We have crane tracks near the railroad tracks. Are they too close?”

The general examines the drafts carefully. His brow is very slightly furrowed. He nods almost imperceptibly. I await a response. The soldiers wait. Finally, the generally replies, “The warehouse took up most of the space.”

My heart sinks. I can’t block out the entire scene with an ugly rectangular warehouse. It has no windows, no reflections, no shadows, no defining characteristics.

The questions spring forth more rapidly now. “Did you have boxes or bags, like we have here?” a lieutenant asks. Another man points to a pencil sketch and inquires, “The ships here—did you use any Liberty ships, Sir? Were these Army or did you use others?”

“What about the angle of the ship as it’s pulled in near the warehouse?” a lieutenant asks. “Is it facing the right direction? The open hold—would it be filled? We’d like a barge over here, in the background. We’re thinking of adding more cargo. And there will be more people working. We put a guard on deck. I hope you like that.” Finally, he asks, “Does this look like it was?”

The general stares intently at the largest, most detailed drawing. There is a suspended silence. Then, quietly, he murmurs, “I don’t remember.”

My jaw slackens. My gut unravels. My headache releases its Vulcan death grip on my neck. My feet are safely planted on terra firma. He is human, this demi-god.

I study the faces around me. I watch them watch the general. They, too, are relieved, but more, they are bewildered. How will they proceed? They are a universe apart from me. They have had years of training and indoctrination. They operate within the peculiar confines of the military structure, just as executives work through the corporate management hierarchy. This moment to them represents a culmination of years, events and experiences telescoped into one definitive meeting. The general will approve their battle plan. He is expected to validate their efforts on this day.

I have no comparable reality. And so my monolithic, military gargoyle sifts to the floor like ground pencil shavings. I had planned to re-draw my sketches. Now I will rework my concepts.

It is not the general who determines the final direction of my work. Nor am I the maestro of the canvas. Form, line, positioning, subject are decided by the men who hired me to begin with. They design the final piece imagining how he would want it.   

 The painting accurately depicts the Port of Pusan during the Korean War. It is unmistakably military—olive green, muted gold, tan, brown, gray. It is unarresting, self-conscious. I want to add more figures. I want crowding, lifting, sweating, jostling, walking, blurring in united effort. I want to feel the action. I want to be there. I want to bring out the reflections in the headlights of the trucks. I want to zoom in to individual faces to catch glints of light in their pupils, crows feet at the corners of their eyes. But I have run out of time.

Every man who worked at this port must see himself in some work he performed. I must include cargo, tons of it. Things, things, 10 million tons of things. I am not creating a work of art. I am creating a memory, a piece of history. I placate myself with that thought.

The night of the unveiling I shake hands with a roomful of military men and their wives. Many served in Korea. They smile and thank me. We are all very polite. But I wonder, did I do well? Do they see themselves? Is it real? Will these prints hold a place of honor in their homes, or will they be shoved in the attic along with other memorabilia? I have no way of knowing. I did not lift those crates, drive those trucks, fire those weapons. I am an artist with a paintbrush.

How does an artist know when a painting is finished? I knew when I realized that none of this had anything to do with a general—an unassuming, humble and forgetful man who plays golf and laughs with his friends at lunch. His real power lay somewhere in the past, in an Asian port I will never see except in a painting mastered by my own hand.

Note: Lt. Gen. Fuson died February 15, 2004 in Williamsburg, Virginia

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