By Alex Snyder, Defense Media Activity
When you think of Army imagery, you probably think of photos like this:
But for Sgt. 1st Class Juan Munoz, the Army’s only artist-in-residence, the images he creates look more like this:
Munoz, a former drill sergeant and multimedia illustrator with 16 years of service, spends his days getting his hands dirty just like many other soldiers. The difference is that his hands are usually covered in paints and inks and not dust and mud from the field.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” said Munoz, during a visit to his Fort Belvoir, Virginia art studio. “I love being a soldier, and being able to include my art in my Army career is very special.”
The position is part of the U.S. Army Art Program, and as part of his role with the division, Munoz documents, through art, the day-to-day life of soldiers and current operations. The pieces he creates are then stored in the Army’s historical art collection and displayed in various military museums.
“We don’t have a lot of rules in the program,” said Munoz, who is two years into the position, which artists usually fill for three. “One of the rules we do have is that the artist must experience for himself or herself what is being depicted in the pieces. He or she had to at least be present in that location to be able to represent that.”
Artists in the program regularly deploy to experience different aspects of Army life. Munoz has been to Iraq, Afghanistan, South East Asia, and across the U.S. while in the position. The job is very solitary, and artists are expected to document their experiences as they see fit. Because of the autonomy of the position, the job is currently only open to soldiers at the rank of sergeant first class and above, said Munoz.
“I am the artist and while we have a team here, a lot of people on the team are civilians and don’t necessarily know what it takes to get to Iraq. They don’t know what it takes to get to Afghanistan,” said Munoz. “I have to do all those checks on myself, all the packing lists. So maturity and the attention-to-detail that comes with being of a higher rank is really important.”
Artists are also expected to be self-motivated when it comes to creating their art, said Munoz.
“There is no dictating from superiors or anyone in the program saying, I want you create an oil painting of this. It’s completely up to the artist to decide how to represent the experience that inspires the piece,” he said. “For the most part, I let the piece I’m working on dictate its medium and what I believe it will be best represented as.”
The artist-in-residence program is currently celebrating its 100th year. Established in 1918 during WWI, the Army commissioned eight artists and sent them out to cover the expeditionary forces of the war.
During WWII, due to budget constraints, the program lost much of its momentum, explained Munoz. During Vietnam there were nine teams of 5-6 artists that rotated through the theater of operations and in the 90s, the Center of Military History, under the guidance by then Chief of Staff Gen. Russell Sullivan, developed the current artist-in-residence position which has been in place for over 20 years now, covering the Global War on Terrorism and other operations around the world.
“One of the things with art, as opposed to photography, is that art allows you to add or take away things, or control what you want the viewer to see,” said Munoz, when asked why he thought the program made a comeback in the age of digital photography. “You can make something more dramatic, bigger, heavier, bulkier. Art kind of helps you to slow down. Observe it, look at the emotion, look at the colors. It helps you settle in the fast world that we live in now. One doesn’t take away from the other. One doesn’t compete with the other. It just allows a whole different medium to be portrayed.”
Art transcends decades, added Munoz. Soldiers in WWII went through the same trials and issues that many modern-day soldiers experience.
“Even something as mundane as a line of soldiers standing in line to eat chow. Almost everyone who has served in the Army knows what that is like. We still have soldiers today standing in line to eat their eggs, and that happened in Vietnam too. The soldier can remember. And a piece of art depicting it means service members from different generations will always have something to relate to.”
“I like to create in phases,” said Munoz, while working on a painting featuring Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. “The documentation phase is when I am deployed. I take notes, capture photos. Sometimes I interview soldiers for background on the individual or organization that I am depicting. I will write down how hot it is that day. How hungry we were that day. All that information comes back and then I go through a process of observing what I want to portray in a more finished product.”
Soldiers interested in taking Munoz’s place should know that while it’s currently only open to design related job fields, the program may eventually open to all Army careers.
“I came in this position after I was contacted by the Center of Military History, mainly because I had been involved in different military competitions that involved art or design. And they were able to know about me and they requested that I submit a portfolio, submit a bio and my military records. They then present those to a board, and fortunately for me, I was chosen for this position.”
Army artists selected for the program serve for a relatively short amount of time, which means they must be sure of what they wish to communicate during their tenure, said Munoz.
“Art bridges a gap, and even some of the greatest artists that are out there, every once-in- awhile there is a mistake- a misplaced brush stroke maybe. It humanizes the art,” said Munoz. “By humanizing the picture, we connect with it in a different way. I just hope I can humanize the American soldier. For me, it’s not about creating a great piece of art, but telling a great story. The people I depict have a family at home, a life. They’re soldiers, but they’re so much more.”
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