Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Rules

I got to spend some time today leading a drawing class at the Warrior's Canvas and Veterans Art Center in Johnson City, TN.  This was my second time leading the class and, like the first time, it was a lot of fun.  The students, all vets from all services, were enthusiastic, game for whatever I threw at them, and highly irreverent.  Everybody in the room was fair game for pointed but good-natured abuse, including me.  I'm looking forward to the next class already.

The Warrior's Canvas is not your typical gallery and art center.  Most art centers seem to cater to hobbyists and are about as edgy as a beach ball.  The kind of place that your Aunt Zelma would think was "nice".  The Canvas, though, was created by and for veterans and their families - people who have been through quite a few wringers in life, have heard every kind of BS you can think of and many more you can't, and who developed appropriate coping skills.  Like the irreverence that I mentioned earlier.

I noticed the Center's rules today, posted on a chalkboard.  A normal art center might have rules that say something like "Please be considerate.  Please remove your trash.  Please do not bring animals into the studio."  Rules that Aunt Zelma would understand.  They don't apply at the Canvas.  Not only were there two dogs present and occasionally participating in the class, the rules were geared toward a very different audience.  Here, then, are the
Rules of the Canvas:
- Keep it positive.  If you are negative, you will be removed forcibly to the curb.
- Clean up after yourself.  I am not your mother.
- You have trust and respect until you Bravo Foxtrot us, then you will see my war face!  (Editor's note: don't ask what "Bravo Foxtrot" means.)

Aunt Zelma would not approve of the tone, she'd be horrified at the idea of actually shooting arrows inside, and she'd faint if she knew what Bravo Foxtrot meant.  But veterans?  Vets would read the Rules, nod, say something like "Fuckin' A", and get to work.  And probably go outside to shoot the arrows.  But not always.

There's an understanding that vets have with each other that comes from shared and similar experiences.  We rib each other unmercifully, cut each other a good bit of slack, and jump to each other's aid when needed.  David Shields and Jason Sabbides, the two vets who created the Warrior's Canvas, have built a remarkable veterans' center in Johnson City.  I'm very proud and humbled to be able to participate in this project.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

In the Studio

Time for an update on my studio work, isn't it?  A while back, I wrote about a painting in progress.  One of my models also makes her own line of clothes.  This new painting is about her creative process of turning random bits of cloth into a wearable work of art.

Initially, I was looking at one of my favorite artists, Jerome Witkin, for inspiration on how to put this painting together.  Witkin is a fabulous story-teller and you really can't go wrong in borrowing ideas from a master like him.  So I started working on ideas for the composition.  For a painting of this type, my routine is to do a lot of drawings, cut them apart, recombine them in different ways, take things out, and add things in, until something starts to happen.  This one had maybe 15 different drawings, and parts of drawings, taped together to create one image.  Then I put tracing paper over it, traced the lines to create a smooth version, and then filled in more details.  Here's what it looked like:

The next step is to do a color study.  I transferred the drawing to a 20"x16" panel and painted it in oil.  Here's the first stage, a warm grisaille; I later went over it with brighter colors:

As soon as it was done, I realized that this particular composition wasn't going to work.  It looked too jammed-in, the light was coming from the wrong direction, the workbench wasn't the right height, the ironing board in the background was too confusing, and the stuff in the foreground was just clutter.  Further, it was too literal - there was nothing to suggest the larger theme of creativity.  I had to come up with something different.

Although Witkin is one of my favorite artists of all time, I have a hard time using him as an inspiration.  Witkin's works are beautiful little stage settings.  "Stage" is the applicable word as most of his works are constructions within the very small area of his canvas, just like stage settings are constructions within a very small area in an auditorium.  I have a hard time with that idea, for some reason, and my efforts to create a stage setting looked like a high school effort, when what I'm shooting for is something more natural.

So I shifted the source of my inspiration from Witkin to Vermeer.  Vermeer's works are probably much closer to my nature.  They're quiet (Witkin's most decidedly are not), carefully constructed, narrative, and take place in a natural interior setting.  They also have a strong metaphorical character, as well, which is often only apparent after considerable study.  So after another session with the drawing paper, scissors, and tape, here's the compositional study that I came up with:

 The light is coming from the left side and shining on the dress.  The young lady's face is in shadow - this painting is not about her as a person, but about the idea of the hard work of creating something, so her particular identity is not important.  The workbench is now an appropriate height and the ironing board is now in the foreground, providing a bit of a visual block between the viewer and the dress.  Then I worked it up into a color study on gessoed paper:

This version made me realize that the composition needs even more work.  It still has a bit of a jammed-in feeling.  So I extended the painting to the left and down (I taped another piece of gessoed paper on the bottom).  This had the effect of pushing the viewer back a bit and giving the seamstress a little more breathing room.  I can also use the window and light/shadow to define her work area and frame the composition.  I've also increased the light/dark differences so make it have a bit more of a dramatic presence.  This would make more sense if I had a photo of the current version, but I don't right now, so use your imagination!

But there's still a lot to be done.  I need to decide what's going to be on the wall.  I have a few ideas, none of which have really grabbed me as the "right" one.  There are some things I need to do around the window.  The fabric on the workbench isn't right yet.

But it's getting there.  Meanwhile, I have a 48"x48" canvas stretched and primed and ready to go.  I'm looking forward to getting to work on it!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Farewell, Margaret

I learned today that a dear friend of ours, Margaret, passed away yesterday.  Her death was a shock as she was still fairly young (in her 50's, which is still young these days), vibrant, active, and enjoying life.  As it turned out, she died from choking on some food.  Something that could happen to anybody, including you or me, at any time.  Margaret was alone at home and had nobody to help her out.

I met Margaret through art.  She worked in a style that resembled German Expressionism, only with a gentle, warmly humorous, and loving manner.  It was far more sophisticated than most people understood.  Margaret loved the people, places, and things in her life and showed it in her artworks.  We have one of her paintings of a horse.  This wasn't just any old horse, it was a particular one that had a funny way of looking at her that made her laugh.  So she painted a portrait of it.  In the same way, she painted the people in her rural area - country people that could easily have been the butt of jokes from somebody else, but whom Margaret treated with warmth and appreciation.

Margaret Katz Nodine
Oil on panel, 16"x20"

More importantly, Margaret was a wonderful person to be around.  She was outgoing and genuinely interested in other people.  She had a large circle of friends and delighted in them.  I never heard her say a bad word about anybody.  Anybody.  She took great pleasure in digging in her garden, despite allergies that should have knocked her down, and she absolutely loved her dogs.  Anytime we saw her, she was all laughter and stories and enjoying whatever she was doing.

And now she's gone.  Just like that.  One bite that went down the wrong way and a vibrant life is cut too short.  Unexpected deaths have a way of making you re-examine your priorities, don't they?  They make me realize that life is a gift and we should do our best to enjoy what we have.  It's so easy to get caught up in life's minutiae, or in the things that "have" to get done, and forget about the daily joys that we're presented with.  So this afternoon, I sat outside, watching the light shimmering off our birch tree, listening to the birds chirping their songs to each other, scratching my dog's ears, and feeling the light breeze flowing through the valley.  Appreciate what you have.

If Margaret was able to comment on her own death, I bet that she'd have something to say that was ironic, funny, and absolutely on-point.  Something like, "Some people get to go out like heroes, saving somebody from a burning house or whatever.  Me, I get done in by a sandwich.  Oy!"  And she'd have a huge laugh over it.

We miss you already, Margaret.  Sleep well, my friend.

PS - A late correction.  We learned later that Margaret died of a massive heart attack, not from choking as was originally thought.  Either way, we have lost a wonderful woman.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Abandoning our Friends

Fuck you US embassy dick suckers
Fuck US States department
You guys are fucking playing games with our feeling son of bitches.
                                       - Najeeb Ahmadzi

That came from somebody who has earned the right to rant: one of the thousands of Afghans and Iraqis who put their lives on the line for the American efforts in their countries.  Men and women who served as interpreters, advisors, office staff, engineers, expediters, and the hundred and one other positions of trust that could only be done by locals.  These were people who believed in what we were doing, who supported our efforts, who often defied threats, family ostracism, extreme danger, and poor treatment, in order to do their jobs.  All they asked in return was that we hold up our end of the bargain.  Many of those bargains included the promise of special immigrant visas (SIV's), which allowed them to resettle in the United States when their service was over and their lives were in danger.  

Our country, unfortunately, is breaking its promises.

Ahmadzi is hardly alone.  There are literally thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who have had their SIV applications denied or indefinitely delayed for any multitude of reasons.  My own interpreter from Afghanistan has been trying for three years to get his promised SIV.  His application has been denied three times, with no explanation as to why.  He is somewhat fortunate, in that he has a support team made up of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP, an organization working to help Iraqi and Afghans with their visas and other issues) as well as those of us who worked with him in Kandahar.  After a lot of investigating, and with no help at all from the US State Department, we eventually learned the reason.  And it's not something that will change easily.

A bit of context first.  I worked for the State Department in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  My experience was not very positive.  I found it to be an extremely bureaucratic organization whose culture was based on avoiding decisions and responsibility.  As a retired military guy, from a culture in which making decisions and taking responsibility were valued, I found this to be jarring.  Individual people in the State Department were often wonderful, but the culture of the organization as a whole was dangerous and disturbing.

When the SIV program was first proposed, our then-Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, was against it.  He thought it would drain Afghanistan of its best and brightest.  Unstated in his emails, but certainly an issue in the background, was the idea that helping Afghans leave the country would be the equivalent of admitting that our efforts at building the country had failed.  Despite his objections, Congress approved the program and ordered the State Department to implement it.

The State Department leaders handled it in the perfectly bureaucratic manner that they have mastered when told to do something they don’t want to do.  First, they had their lawyers review every word and punctuation mark that Congress had provided.  Then they drafted their own interpretations of what the laws said and devised a byzantine process to follow these interpretations.  Finally, they hired a non-US contractor to implement the program.  This allowed the State Department to create a process that was guaranteed to fail, while at the same time providing cover and deniability for those responsible.  And they were brilliantly successful.  In 2011, the State Department issued three SIV visas.  That's all: three.  In the course of the whole year.  In 2012, that rose to 63.  Public outcry resulted in pressure on Secretary of State John Kerry to review the process, and in 2014 they processed 3,441.  Still, there are over 6,000 applicants in various stages of the process in Afghanistan.  In Iraq, there are over 57,000.  

So here’s what the State Department’s application process entails:
1.  File an application online.  This includes the DS157 form, copy of a national ID card, copy of a passport, proof of employment (including both an employment verification letter from any contractors, badges used on bases, and so on), a letter of recommendation from a direct supervisor, and a statement of any dangers being faced.  If you’re missing any of those things, for instance if you don’t know how to get in touch with your former supervisor, you’re out of luck: no visa for you.
2.  If the first step is successful, the applicant has to file an application for a visa.  It requires much of the same information for the applicant and every member of the family.  The applicant also has to get a physical.  There is only one clinic in Afghanistan authorized to do the physicals, and they cost $500 for each individual, including the kids.  The physicals are only good for a period of time, so if the Embassy drags its heels on approval (which it usually does), then they have to get the physicals done again, at the same cost of $500 per person.  The visa process is completely separate from the SIV application process, and there are many cases of a person getting approved for an SIV and then having the actual visa denied based on the same information.
3.  If the applicant gets through the first two stages, he or she gets an interview at the U.S. Embassy.  This includes a polygraph test and a background investigation.  Ever taken a polygraph test?  There’s a reason that poly’s are not admissible in court: they’re error-prone.  They do not detect whether a person is lying, they just detect whether a person has an involuntary reaction to a question, and they have a very high number of false alarms.  If the interviewer doesn’t like your answers, or if you react on the poly, you’re out of luck.

At the same time, there are many hidden traps that the Embassy does not tell you about.  For example, the State Department’s original instructions said that the program applied to those people who had been employed “by, or on behalf of, the US Government”, for a period of at least 12 months.  My interpreter had spent 27 months working exclusively with US Special Forces, US Army units, and the State Department.  Sounds like a slam dunk, right?  No.  The State Department refused to recognize all but four of those months.  They never once explained why, despite repeated requests from both my interpreter, myself, and IRAP.  We eventually discovered that the company my interpreter worked with was paid on an ISAF contract.  Since that wasn’t a US contract, his time there didn’t count.  Despite minor changes to the program since then, his time there still doesn’t count.

Another trap is that the Embassy has set up a special, anonymous hotline, where people can phone in allegations against anybody working for the US, past or present.  That will derail an application.  The Taliban knows this and makes use of it.  So, in effect, the State Department has to have the Taliban’s approval before issuing an SIV.  If the Taliban wants the individual to stay in Afghanistan so they can be killed, they just have to call in an allegation and the State Department is happy to oblige.  

Another trap is that of any bureaucracy: slow-rolling the process.  This delays applications until the program expires, when they don’t have to worry about it anymore.  The State Department did this in Iraq, resulting (as noted above) in over 57,000 applications being stalled in the pipeline when the deadline passed.  That’s 57,000 decisions the State Department didn’t have to make.  Except, thanks to a lawsuit filed by IRAP on behalf of some of those Iraqis, the State Department was forced to re-open the pipeline.  But as we’ve seen, having the pipeline open, and actually getting people through it, are two very different things.

There have been many articles this month about the fall of Saigon 40 years ago.  Many focused on “Operation Frequent Wind”, in which over 7,000 people were evacuated in two days, and “Operation Babylift”, in which over 3,300 young children were evacuated in three weeks.  The differences between those two programs and the State Department  processes in Iraq and Afghanistan are immense.  The Vietnam operations were run by the military.  Under chaotic conditions, young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines evacuated more people in three weeks than the State Department has processed in four years.  Unlike the State Department, they didn’t demand that application forms be filled out, proof of citizenship be provided, physicals taken, or polygraphs be passed.  No, they saw people in immediate danger and did their best to get them to safety.  

The State Department, though, couldn’t care less.    

But the Taliban does.  They have a pretty good idea of who worked for the US and they’re picking them off at the rate of about one every 36 hours.  My interpreter has been attacked twice.  The first time, they shot him off his motorcycle and left him for dead in Kandahar City.  The second time, they missed him, but blew his mother’s brains all over the back seat of his car.  His best friend, also an interpreter, was recently killed.  He and his family are now in hiding.  They have to move frequently and change phone numbers because the Taliban keep finding out where they are.  His family has disowned him because of the danger brought on them.  There are literally thousands of others in the exact same situation.

Lest you think that these are just the rants of one crazy old man, here are a few sample articles on the problem that have appeared recently.  Google “Afghan interpreters”, “Iraqi interpreters”, “interpreters killed”, or similar topics, or go to the Iraq Refugee Assistance Project and read more.

So what can you do?  Contact your Senators and Congressman and urge them to do two things.  First, hold hearings and force the State Department to own up to their abysmal performance.  Second, urge them to revise the language of the laws governing the program to make it easier to understand, more transparent, more responsive, and much, much faster.  Lives depend on it.

Until it’s fixed, thousands of people who were our friends and allies will be saying the same things that Ahmadzi said:

Fuck you US embassy dick suckers
Fuck US States department
You guys are fucking playing games with our feeling son of bitches.