When the lights turned off in Rowe Recital Hall on Monday, the room stood still and all that could be seen was the pain etched onto the veterans’ faces.
Former marine and UNC Charlotte illustration major Robert Bates, 29, along with three other artists, represented the Joe Bonham Project; a series of artwork displaying wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan and their agonizing road to recovery.
Founder of the Joe Bonham Project, Michael Fay, attended the showcase and panel discussion along with Bates and illustrators Jeffrey Fisher and Victor Juhasz.
The sketches and paintings presented on stage were a part of the goal all the artists share in telling the story of our harrowing heroes continuing to fight after they leave the battlefield.
“Our mission is to document the struggles they [wounded veterans] are facing at the hospitals after coming home from war,” said Bates.
“Our mission is to ensure America does not forget today’s Joe Bonhams.”
The name of the project and the ‘Joe Bonham’ Bates referred to is the inspiration behind this collaboration. Fay, a former marine and combat artist, drew from Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” to represent the collection of work.
The main character of Trumbo’s book is Joe Bonham, a World War I veteran left without arms and legs and struggling to maintain his presence in a society moving on without him.
“Our longest period of war has dropped off the radar,” said Fay. “There are still guys in Afghanistan, there are still guys struggling with wounds received in Iraq. We want this generation of GIs to be deep influencers of our culture.”
The artists capture the suffering endured and the strength needed by U.S. soldiers to adapt to their recent injuries in honest but grim portraits of their new reality.
The veterans are delicately approached by the artists while they are recovering in places like Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Bates understood these are sensitive issues he was dealing with but he said his military experience and simply asking their story was enough to establish a level of comfort.
“You start swapping stories but you’re more listening than you are talking,” said Bates. “You understand what they’re saying. You may not understand the wounds they are treating. It certainly helps the relationship.”
Communications Studies Professor Jonathan Crane moderated the panel discussion and asked a variety of questions, but the artists made it their focus to help the audience understand the different emotional appeal one gets from art versus quickly-snapped photographs.
“Photography takes in all the information; it’s objective in a sense. Drawings, paintings are a much different procedure. It’s taking the time to sit down and develop a relationship with the subject,” said Juhasz, whose son has served in the military.
“When we sit down we’re not just sitting there coldly drawing. You immediately get in conversations. It doesn’t take much; all you have to do is ask the wounded vet, ‘What happened?’”
Fay explained that, as humans, we experience events through others.
“Art articulates and shares those experiences so a viewer can reproduce that experience in his mind,” said Fay.
The students who filed into Rowe Recital Hall were informed, in a unique way, by passionate and firsthand witnesses of the sacrifices U.S. soldiers make for this country.
Program coordinator and journalism professor in the Communications Studies Department Cheryl Spainhour said, “All four artists that represented the Joe Bonham Project were rivoting. Dr. Krane did an exceptional job moderating the panel and we had a good turnout.”
After the discussion the four artists mingled with students and answered questions on the work they have produced thus far.
The Joe Bonham Project will continue its tour across the continent in the coming months. Fay mentioned their work will be exhibited in Toronto, Canada and then Chicago, Ill.
Bates will appear at those exhibits if possible while completing his last two years of study at UNC Charlotte.
He was definite about his intention to continue drawing for the project.
“We will continue to draw,” said Bates.
“Hopefully, it will continue to receive press. Not for the sake of us but for the sake of people wanting to read their stories. As long as there are troops in the hospitals, the Joe Bonham Project will continue to exist.”