Spelman Evans Downer
Fine art paintings
Military Battles Statement
Military battles have always been a fascinating subject for me. In so many ways, they compel me to research their significance as part of my new focus on history itself. Presenting battles visually is a powerful way to tell stories about who we are. Having grown up with a Modern Art view that abruptly shifted halfway through my life to a Post-Modern Art view, I am reconsidering my position. I affirm that “History Painting”, the venerated, highest regarded subject of visual expression in Western Art which was rejected and discredited by the modernists, is due for a re-examination. Collective experiences such as important battles fought in important wars are giving me a whole new focus on creating my map-space landscapes.
The way I make my landscape paintings is to show how the very topography, the landform itself has conditioned the battlefield. My recent study of JMW Turner has shown me a world of “topography artists” from the 18th century. Turner and many colleagues got started as visual artists that supplied a market of art collectors wanting to learn about given landscapes remotely, by making highly trained and technically accurate drawings, prints, and paintings of the land and architecture that existed on any site. I have resolved to double down using my considerable topographic depiction skills that I have been perfecting for most of my life. Unlike Baroque topo artists, who depicted oblique profiles of land from very critical vantage points, I use a direct paint equals land equation. I build a straight-down aerial view, map-like model of the battle field.
The paint, very often impasto oil paint, or increasingly modeling paste, is used as a substance that depicts the land itself. Modeling paste can be anything from the marble dust with acrylic binder called “modeling paste” by Liquitex, to an ever expanding set of alternate substances. Elastomeric patching compounds, oil and traditional “mud” spackles, numerous caulks, and even old fashioned plaster. Each substance can create unique textures and be used to form mini topographies which are the sculpting of materials approach I use as a contemporary topographic artist. All these mixtures I manipulate expressionistically, using painting knives and other tools to swirl, build up, and cut through the material. Thus I create loose miniature models of the landscape and the physical topography of a battlefield. These are then layered with further paint applications that add symbolic color and metaphorical effects.
My first battle series was done for an exhibition of mostly drawings I made based on the American Civil War in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1991. Then I painted the first Gulf War as it unfolded from August 1990 to February 1991. Many years later, I returned to the West Coast, and was hired as an art instructor at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree, California. As I was nearing the end my 19 years of teaching in the community college system, I received an official complaint from a student for “teaching too much history” in an art class. I had been watching the Ken Burns documentary series “The West”, and I assigned the art students enrolled in my design class to pick one of three battles to research and then make a proposal for a site specific outdoor artwork that addressed the history of the battle and the combatants. They could choose Gettysburg, Wounded Knee, or Little Big Horn. It was about that time, 2017, that I renewed my own deeper connection with battlefields and American History.
That year I made my own paintings of Gettysburg and Wounded Knee. I knew Gettysburg from my exhibition in 1991 and I had made a point to travel there, walk the battle field, and climb Little Round Top, surveying the importance of the fishhook shaped ridge that sheltered the Union positions. I was surprised to learn how uninformed I was about Wounded Knee and painted my abstract and topographical depiction of the obliteration of what was left of Crazy Horse’s Lakota warriors and their family members along Wounded Knee Creek in shades of bloody red. This research and making these paintings had exposed me to terribly bleak and extremely painful events in my own country’s history. Nonetheless, I resolved to face the facts and realized it was better to know what had happened, feeling strongly that it is best to understand the past. Gettysburg was a turning point in our own Civil War that is perhaps still waiting for complete resolution. Wounded Knee was a senseless massacre of Native Americans who only wanted to preserve their land, freedom and culture.
This summer of 2020 I have completed a suite of World War 2 paintings depicting the allied D-Day invasion of Normandy in Nazi held France. My plans are to paint next The Battle of the Bulge, where my father fought and to then paint some compositions of the Pacific Theater where my step-grandfather was a general under Douglas MacArthur. The Battle for Okinawa is of particular interest to me. I also have it in me to take on the American Civil War again. Antietam, Vicksburg, Appomattox and other battles loom large in my imagination. This time it will not be drawings, but my signature topo based expressionistic oil paintings.
In closing, let me say that I am irrevocably drawn to these military histories because of my fascination with maps. In all of my research I am constantly reminded that maps are the key documents needed for fighting battles intelligently (if that is possible), as they show the lay of the land, and that, as military historians know, is crucial to understanding how the conflicts unfolded and the way they were won or lost. If you research battles you are very likely to find photographs of commanders and military personnel standing and pointing at field maps. The color WW2 photograph of Eisenhower, Montgomery, Bradley and other generals in the map room on February 1, 1944 comes to mind. Also, just as importantly, maps are the best way to analyze battles long after they have ended.