A soldier’s journey

Charles Burt charts a course from military life to an art academy. How the two meet and meld and reflect each other.


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”
– Mark Twain; “Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events.” Edited with an introduction by Bernard DeVoto, 1940

*

IF YOU ARE CURIOUS about the world, have the privilege of meeting a lot of different artists, and risk tackling things that are not exactly central to your own expertise, you’ll expand your horizon. When I set out to portray people with my camera and my writing, the encounters are as varied as the artists I meet. Some evolve into friendships; others are puzzling. Some demand hard thinking; many provide nothing but pleasure. The last year alone introduced me to classically trained musicians turned Ukrainian girl-band, puppeteers from Chile, choreographers in wheelchairs, Mexican political theater activists, female conductors of sacred music, and numerous printmakers from around the nation. All offered glimpses into worlds different from my own, and in one way or another challenged the way how I view art or the process of creating art.

This has never been more true than for my most recent conversation with a man who has lived in worlds so distant from mine that they might as well exist in a different universe. I met him by chance in a museum cafe. He had come to Maryhill Museum of Art to pick up paintings that had been on display in a group exhibition of, among others, student work of the Seattle-based Gage Academy of Art, his included. I was there because of my interest in the Exquisite Gorge Project that was in progress across the summer months. We started to talk and agreed to a studio visit, something I finally managed to set up last week.

Charles Burt, artist

*

PLATOON SERGEANT FIRST CLASS Charles Burt joined the Army when he was 18 years old. He spent more than half of his life there, with a distinguished career in the tank division, multiple deployments to war zones, and eventually as a drill sergeant and recruiter. The duties of an SFC typically include managing soldiers and tanks in a combat arms role, with responsibilities such as tactical logistics, tactical casualty evacuations, and serving as the senior tactical adviser to the platoon leader.

Born in Michigan, he moved to Texas at age nine, shunned in his middle school years as a “Yankee” in an environment where the Civil War had seemingly never ended. His love of drawing and art in general sustained him throughout his childhood. His mother, struggling after a hostile divorce, found a spiritual home in a fundamentally Christian, evangelical church which came to dominate Burt’s belief system during his formative years.

Charles Burt, Respect
Preparation of the correct blue for the American Flag

One of the hallmarks of his religious eduction was the demand for literal interpretation of the bible. If the world was created from scratch but some 10.000 years ago, then any science telling us otherwise was a work of the Devil, meant to distract us. Dinosaurs did not exist. The concept of evolution was a satanic mirage. Heaven and Hell were real places, and anyone not born into or converted to Christianity was condemned to fry in the latter for all eternity.

Fast forward to Operation Desert Storm, in reaction to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that threatened U.S. oil demands in 1991. Burt now in his early twenties, was deployed. The Gulf War casualties were enormous. Assumed numbers vary. Les Aspin, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, estimated at the time that “at least 65,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed,” and later sources reporting one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand casualties. MEDACT reports on civilian casualties estimate the number of Iraqi deaths caused directly and indirectly by the Gulf War to be between 142,500 and 206,000.

Charles Burt, Tank

Burt could not wrap his mind around the fact that all of these people, many innocently caught between the warring parties, would be condemned to eternal life in flames. It seemed amoral to decide that the element of chance – where you were born or what information you had access to – would determine your fate. Cracks appeared in his armor of evangelical convictions, leading to extensive reading and listening to other views offered by the mix of people he met in the Army and his exposure to a foreign world. Being religious turned to being interested in religions, with faith eventually discarded and the emerging hole filled with learning about science and philosophy. It was a turnaround requiring enormous amounts of moral courage – matching his physical courage. It meant to leave behind everything that had been a constant in his life, everything that had constituted his ethical yardstick. Everything, that is, except his interest in art.

*

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”
– Hannah Arendt, “The Human Condition,” 1958

*

WE TALK A LOT that morning we meet at the Atelier where Burt, after retiring from the Army in 2013, is finishing his fourth year of art education. At times I find myself holding my breath at the intensity of what he experienced; how every sensory detail is etched into his memory.

“One of the toughest things I had to deal with while in the Army was a Bosnia rotation in 1997. We had to do patrols around towns and weapons inspections as well as patrol the mass grave sites so the U.N. soldiers could remove the bodies without getting harassed by those who did not want us doing that. I was the gunner on a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) and so I rode in the turret on top, and on our way to one of the mass grave sites I can smell that we were getting close. We had to go through an abandoned demolished village and our interpreter would talk to us about how this was one of the towns where the Serbian army went through and committed their mass genocide. They would drive through with tanks blasting through houses and she showed us the large holes that were blown through different houses. In the middle of the town is the largest building which was the school and she explained to us how children were brought outside of the school and the Serbian soldiers would pull them out one at a time and she showed us a large indention in one of the walls outside where the children would get executed. The parents would try to come down and then they would shoot the parents that were trying to save the kids. It was a tough thing to hear about and be at this place. We had passed that town so many times and never gave it one thought until our interpreter told us about it. I never looked at the abandoned buildings around the country the same way again. It’s something that still haunts my dreams. I am really glad that I did get to experience that and be a part of that. I met some wonderful people while I was there and learned a lot.”

Charles Burt, Self Portrait (Reflection in the window of his tank, looking out)

I hear about how it felt to be under mortar attack while stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006 during the Sunni Awakening, the Iraqi revolt against al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in which Sunni Arabs partnered with U.S. forces to fight a common enemy. It was a bad place at a bad time. Burt’s small Forward Operating Base (FOB, or camp) was under constant sniper and mortar attacks, often so close that the building would rattle and the noise could be heard by his wife when he was talking with her on the phone; he tells her white lies to protect her, about the generator blowing up or the gas tank rumbling, while his own men sit with pale faces pinned against the shaking walls.

A subsequent PTSD diagnosis captures the horrors of what was lived. His loving, remarkably kind, and supportive wife eases his re-entry.

*

GAGE ACADEMY OF ART is a nonprofit, extended-learning and contemporary art center that has provided community-based art instruction for about 30 years in Seattle. It offers public art events, lectures, youth programming and exhibitions, but central to its educational mission is the Atelier program. The program promises a path to mastery in drawing, painting, or sculpture in a deeply immersive environment under the tutelage of internationally renowned teaching artists.

Live Drawing Class before the lecture begins

The first year of instruction is entirely devoted to drawing, mostly with charcoal. The second year introduces but two colors in oil; and in the third year, painting with the full palette is encouraged. The fourth year is dedicated to developing your own portfolio, which will be critiqued at the end of the year by the entire faculty, not just the specific Atelier head who guided you through the years.

Burt did his research well and chose wisely: He joined Juliette Aristide‘s Atelier, which offers fundamental drawing and painting skills with a strong emphasis on observation from life in the tradition of American Classical Realism. Her own description:

“Like the great studios of the past, working from the human figure in life drawing and painting forms a pillar of our program. With that in mind we spend every morning throughout the year in the life room. The afternoons are spent in your studio working through the atelier’s curriculum of cast drawing, master-copy work and still life painting in a step-by-step progression. As you acquire each skill, new and more challenging projects are assigned. Aristide’s Atelier students are also provided additional classes in perspective, anatomy, composition, painting techniques, and color theory.”

The term Classical Realism was coined by Minneapolis painter Richard Lack, who founded the first studio patterned after the 19th-century French ateliers in 1967. By the 1980s a significant number of young artists emerged from this educational setting, continuing to spread the tradition. No one seemed to mind the contradiction in terms: Classicism, after all, is devoted to subject matters, highly idealized, from ancient Greece and Rome. Realism, on the other hand, is devoted to common objects and themes, beautification be damned. No one cared about the many voices in the art world, either, who heaped scorn on what they perceived to be a reactionary movement.

Study objects at the Atelier

Classical Realism has become a living tradition. It finds its roots in both the techniques and the training approaches of the past: deep immersion in technical skill, draftsmanship, and composition. A focus on honing perceptual sensitivities, representational devices, and creation of harmonious beauty.

Charles Burt, Drawing of Moses Sculpture

Whatever one’s ultimate judgment of the Classical Realism movement, there surely could not be a better fit for Burt. For one whose life has been a continual experience within structure, be it the stark religious corset of the evangelical movement or the rank-and-file hierarchy and code of the military, a highly structured teaching of means and methods, now in a nurturing environment, provides some continuity.

Charles Burt, Deployment

More significantly, a life once pressed into the scaffold of literal interpretation of imaginary worlds is now devoted to the literal observation of the real one, the here and now in front of our eyes. Burt’s choice of subjects for his portfolio concern two topics, both helping to externalize the internal struggles: objects associated with military and with religious service. While observing him at work in the studio I was reminded of Monet’s phrase linked to Impressionism: “To see we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at.” An inversion seems apt here: To look allows the painter to forget (for a few hours) the things he has seen.

*

THE US DEPARTMENT OF VETERAN AFFAIRS has a category of injury sustained in war related to, but distinct from, PTSD: Moral injury.

Like psychological trauma, moral injury is a construct that describes extreme and unprecedented life experience, including the harmful aftermath of exposure to such events. Events are considered morally injurious if they “transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression that shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so forth. In the context of war, moral injuries may stem from direct participation in acts of combat, such as killing or harming others, or indirect acts, such as witnessing death or dying, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders that are perceived as gross moral violations. The act may have been carried out by an individual or a group, through a decision made individually or as a response to orders given by leaders.

I could not, of course, ascertain if or to what degree moral injury was sustained above and beyond PTSD. But I saw moral courage in Burt’s creation of paintings that confront his experiences directly and simultaneously slow us down and force us to contemplate parts of someone’s experience with war and the shattering of faith.

The paintings do tell a story, many stories. One series, for example, is constructed within a light box with light shining onto the tableaux from different angles. I forget the exact order, but a grouping of Judaic objects is centrally lit, objects related to Christian worship will be lit from a left angle, and those associated with Islam correspondingly from the right. A shared source of light for these Abrahamic religions, tilted into different perspectives.

Life Tableau in the Studio

Military boots serve as a reminder of deployment, now wiped from all traces of foreign contaminated soil, brushed to full shine. Working boots, by tradition put outside the door of the many wives and families waiting for their soldier to come home, alive and limbs intact.

Charles Burt, Tanker Boots
Charles Burt, Work Boots

Whether these stories will help to bear the sorrow is a question I cannot answer.

*

“I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.”
– Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis, No. 1,” 1776

*

CHARLES BURT HAS BEEN DIAGNOSED with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Many of the early symptoms of this disease overlap with those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Tremors, difficulty sleeping, and poor emotional regulation, including anger and/or depression, can be evidence of either PD or PTSD. Parkinson’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominantly dopamine-producing (“dopaminergic”) neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra. Eventually the limbs will be rigid, the gait changes, there will be sensory loss, and cognitive impairment.

Charles Burt’s hands, steadying each other

Parkinson’s Disease cannot be cured, although science has produced an arsenal of interventions, from dopaminergic medications to surgical treatment providing deep brain stimulation. These treatment options provide symptom relief, but do not cure or halt the progression of the disease. They also need to be carefully timed across an expected life span, since they loose efficacy over time. Science has been dangling alternative approaches – gene therapy, immunotherapy, and cell transplantation – but so far these things have not moved beyond the infancy stages of experimentation.

Recent studies point to the possibility that people diagnosed with PTSD have an increased risk of developing not only neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimers, but also Parkinson’s Disease. The exact causal mechanisms are not yet known. The Veterans Administration, for lack of causal documentation during his service years, has not acknowledged responsibility for Burt’s condition. There will never be proof that exposure to multiple IED explosions hurt neuronic pathways. There will never be a way to determine if the poisonous air inhaled from the oil fires in Kuwait acted as a precursor to nerve degeneration. Burt certainly remembers how he and other soldiers would be finally served a hot meal out in the open after a sortie and the plate would be covered with black soot particles before they reached the tables, the food inedible.

Charles Burt in front of easel

Imagine what it means for someone in the early years of their painting career to face this affliction. To wonder when the ability to draw realistically will be impaired by uncontrollably shaking hands; when it will be impossible to paint for lack of coherent, fluid motion. How it will affect growing into a mature artist with a developed style.

Burt lives in the moment. His urge to build a body of work is unstoppable. His passion for the beauty of the world is undiminished. “Science is my new religion,” he says, with a gentle smile full of optimism. “Something will come along.” Thomas Paine’s words float in my brain, about gathering strength from distress and growing brave from reflection. No reflection needed: This man is a paragon of bravery. Sustained by art.


  • Friderike Heuer’s essay and photographs were first published at YDP – Your Daily Picture on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, under the title A Soldier’s Journey: From Military Life to Art Academy, and is reprinted here with permission.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.