In late July, I met with UNC Charlotte sophomore art major Robert Bates in the Student Union to watch him in action: sketching students on campus.
We exchanged greetings and a handshake and he began scouting out a student in the Union. He spotted UNC Charlotte education major Rachel Mode sitting in the middle of the atrium area.
He immediately walked up to her and asked if it was ok if he sketched a picture of her. She nodded aloofly as if she didn’t seem to understand the question.
Bates sat down across from Mode, taking out a large black sketch pad and a few graphite pencils from a “Toy Story” zip-lock bag and began the outline. As Bates continued sketching Mode, a conversation developed. Organically, the young Marine made a connection with his art subject, and they began to talk about Bates’ history with the Marines and the role art plays in his life.
About five minutes into the conversation, Mode looked in my direction as I snapped pictures and took notes.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m a reporter doing a story on Mr. Bates,” I said, trying to avoid joining into the conversation. I was just there to watch.
“Oh, what is so newsworthy about him?” she said.
While certainly not a hard question to answer, it was difficult to know where to begin.
Bates did eight years in the Marine infantry, along with three deployments. Two of those tours were to Afghanistan, where he served in the capacity of team leader, squad leader and war artist. According to Bates, he would sketch as often as his billet would allow him.
“The sketches serve as my personal eye witness account of the war in Afghanistan,” Bates said. “I documented Marines relaxing on their downtime, standing post, on patrol, enemy prisoners of war in captivity, gun trucks destroyed by improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.) and hellfire missile strikes. You know, just another day at the office.”
Since then, his art has been featured across the states. Several of Bates’ works, particularly sketches of firsthand accounts from Afghanistan, are part of the permanent combat art collection at the National Museum of the Marine Corp.
In addition, his work chronicling the experiences of wounded U.S. troops in recovery is a part of an artist documentation of the wars for the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
I gave Mode a shortened version of this as Bates continued to sketch her.
I asked about what was going through Bates’ mind as he sketched. He told me that he sometimes gets bored drawing the same typical angles of people and that he enjoyed finding a unique angle to sketch students.
According to the artist there has been a large gap over the summer between his classes and his shift at work. This is when he sits down, often times in the Student Union to draw candid scenes of students on campus socializing or studying.
Bates typically sketches his subjects at a fairly rapid pace: usually within 15-20 minutes, depending on how often that person shifts around. As far as finished work goes, Bates admits that they are usually complete within one day to several months.
After this drawing was complete, Bates and Mode exchanged a few final remarks, a few nice-to-meet-yous, and we walked away.
The conversation continued as he tells me more about how these interactions typically went. While in this instance the subject knew she was being sketched, Bates says that they only know about half the time.
“Sometimes I like to keep it ambiguous,” he says about his often spontaneous sketches he completes on campus.
However as he explained, this wasn’t the case for the showcase he organized earlier this year. Alongside three other artists, Bates put together “The Joe Bonham Project” on the UNC Charlotte campus.
Bates had spent time documenting the struggles of recovering Marines in hospitals beds.
Through this experience a gallery was formed that helped produce a sobering image of the reality of war, such as the piece shown below.
According to Bates, it was something that he had wanted to make public to UNC Charlotte from the very beginning.
“Chronicling the recovery process of wounded Soldiers and Marines by telling their stories through art is an amazing experience,” Bates said. “The exhibit caught the attention of not only the school but several newspapers and local TV stations.”
Through “The Joe Bonham Project” the artists involved left a lasting impression on visitors of wounded troops whose stories might have gone untold otherwise.
I asked Bates if he planned to revisit the idea of sketching injured Marines somewhere down the line.
“Revisit? Hell, I’m still actively engaged in it,” he said.
Bates uses art for personal healing as well. He admits that the transition from Marine life to life as a student and employee on campus has not always been a smooth one. Roughly 7% of the Marines experience post-traumatic stress disorder three months after coming home. Bates is one of them. According to the young illustrator, he continues to use art to manage this.
“Hours after my vehicle took a direct hit from an enemy placed I.E.D., I immediately turned to art,” Bates said. “I continued to pump out sketches there, and I’ll continue to pump them out here. Not only does it help me heal, it also helps others heal, too. It’s a two-for-one deal.”
Bates plans to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts degree in illustration. He hopes to gain experience teaching art at a high school level before shifting to a University classroom.
In the meantime, expect Bates’ work to be featured frequently in the Niner Times.