AF Art Program preserves AFDW in paint

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Tabitha N. Haynes
  • Air Force District of Washington Public Affairs
A unique program recently brought a large group of artists around to witness Air Force District of Washington's unique roles, missions and people.

The United States Air Force Art Collection documents the story of the Air Force through the universal language of art, according to their mission statement. The actions and deeds of Air Force men and women are recorded in paintings by volunteer American artists. These paintings are both historical and educational and expose the military and the public to the diverse capabilities of the United States Air Force.

"The Air Force Art Program tells the Air Force story through the medium of art work," said Russell D. Kirk, Air Force Art Program director, Washington, D.C. "On my staff I have no artist. We never have employed an artist."

These independent artists volunteer their time; coming from personal businesses, advertising agencies, and even film studios like the well known Pixar Animation Studios.
"We don't pay them for the paintings, they do this on their own time," said Kirk. "They go back among their busy lives and put acrylic on the canvas, water color on the name it. Then they donate it back to the Air Force."

The Air Force Art Program projects and plans what they are going to cover in the Air Force, said Kirk. This particular mission brought them to the home of AFDW to capture the Air Force mission in the National Capital Region.

The program brought five artists to the NCR who received a personal mission briefing from AFDW Commander Maj. Gen. Darren McDew. Then some highlights of the mission were showcased, including the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard, U.S. Air Force Band, Arlington National Cemetery, and 1st Helicopter Squadron.

They witnessed the arrival of dignitaries on Joint Base Andrews, Md., when the British prime minister touched down on the base flightline; and they observed the Aero-Medical Staging Facility, the transitioning point for wounded service members returning from deployments.

If there is a mission an Airman completes, an artist is willing to go there to ensure they are recognized. Like Airmen, the artists come from all over the country.

"We have the Society of Illustrators in some of the major cities, like New York," said Douglas B. Smith, volunteer Air Force Artist. "They asked me if I'd be interested in working with the Air Force, and I said sure I'll go. I was sent to Offutt, Nebraska the first time."

Art work has been around since the beginning of time, and it will always be here, according to Kirk. The artist has to experience these events to portray them in art.

"It gets translated to a responsibility on our part," said Joel Iskowitz, volunteer Air Force Artist. "We take it as seriously as witnessing you folks doing your job, of which we have the highest esteem for."

There are more than 10,000 works currently in the Air Force art collection.

"I am here because all the luminaries - heroes to us - had served, and very often because of their talents being targeted when they were wearing the uniform; most of them during World War II, some before, some after," said Iskowitz. "The history of reportage art - documenting various missions in war and peace-time - goes back to the battle fields of the civil war. There is something about a handcrafted piece of artwork, from someone who had closely witness an event and had a connection with an event, which translates the story in a real way that no other medium can."

The art program has placed artists in almost every major event the Air Force has been involved in. Artists touched ground with Airmen in Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina and many more places. Some even have experienced life outside the wire.

"We get a rarified opportunity to experience and see things that very few citizens get to see," said Iskowitz.

The art program has pieces that date back prior to the Air Force, beginning in 1950 with artwork from the U.S. Army Air Corps. The program began with a portraits program that documented the history of high ranking Air Force general officers. From there, they realized they had a timeless way to display the missions of the force.

"I truly feel like I am immortalizing (Airmen's) efforts in serving our country," said Stanley Rayfield, a 24 year old Air Force Artist who said he always knew he wanted to be an artist, so he didn't put too much thought into the military. "Being around this, I feel like it is so much bigger than me - bigger than what I thought I knew. I realized I didn't know anything about you guys; I didn't know anything about how much heart and how much spirit this organization has. It is just heartwarming."

Eventually, Air Force Art Program managers met with the New York Society of Illustrators to join forces and generate artists to document Air Force history and missions. The program grew from there, with societies across the country now contributing artists and art to the Air Force.

"We hear about this from word of mouth, it isn't like there is an ad out there or anything like that," said Richard A. Taylor, Air Force Artist. "It is a small community. Artist tells other artists and it gets around."

Each organization across the country has a chairman that coordinates with the Air Force Art Program to pull in artists to cover missions across the country.

"The reason why I joined was not for a higher reason or anything; it was a chance to ride around in airplanes - to go fast, make noise," said Taylor with a smile as everyone chuckled around the table. "I had never been around military in my life before. But once I got to experience these trips, the people, the staff - it was something I completely didn't have in my background. I realized it is a rich opportunity to cover that. It crossed over from just riding on the machines to the experience in total. The rides are good; the experience is more than that."

However, for U.S. Army (Ret.) Clinton Helms, Air Force artist, it is a way for him to show his students what they can do to give back.

"I am retired U.S. Army, 21 years," said Helms. "Having that - serving on the ground, understanding what the military is all about - made it even more special when I was asked to get involved with this program. I currently teach, so it is now a way to help my future students see what you can do."

One of the artists' recollected a time when all the New York Illustrators had their Air Force paintings picked up to be displayed next to a famous piece at the Air and Space Museum.

"I had never gotten to wear a uniform. So this is personally an opportunity for me to pay back for some of the freedoms that we all take so casually," said Iskowitz. "It is the reason why I joined the Society of Illustrators."

The artwork completed by the five artists who visited AFDW will be on display throughout the command and the NCR for all Airmen to enjoy.

"I am like 'man, they are really committed to the ground I walk on'," said Rayfield. "And if my painting can help other people see that, I am happy to do it."