Air Force through eyes of Artists

  • Published
  • By Maj. Elizabeth Aptekar
  • 86 AW/PA
Since receiving about 800 works of art from the U.S. Army in 1950, U.S. Air Force Art Program artists have wielded pens and brushes to convey the actions of Airmen in a way words never can.

Today, artists like John Witt continue this tradition. Recently, Witt and fellow Air Force artists Michael Kane and Christopher Hopkins completed a trip through Southwest Asia visiting Airmen and enjoying experiences they will translate in works of history-depicting art.

While en route back to the U.S., Witt, Kane and Hopkins took a few minutes using their talent inside the Ramstein passenger terminal. In about 30 minutes Witt finished an on-the-spot sketch portrait of an Airman ready to accompany an aeromedical flight to Afghanistan.

Witt has been an artist with the program for 32 years. Though his works tend to include great detail focusing on the real human aspects of military life, he also uses art as a morale booster.

"There are universal themes associated with this work: people and their plight, injuries, women and children," Witt explained. "Art captures the essence of the present."

Today, management of the U.S. Air Force Art Program and collection is the responsibility of the Secretary of the Air Force, Office of the Administrative Assistant, which Witt and 200 other artists are a part of. The program offers artists the opportunity to travel to locations around the world witnessing and recording events in the form of drawings and paintings.

"Among the three artists, they've donated 93 pieces of art," stated Russell Kirk, Air Force Art Program director. "These folks do this for the men and women of the U.S. Air Force and most feel this is their way to give back."

While the Air Force accords the artist all courtesies and privileges equivalent to a GS-15 or Colonel, the artist's income and opportunities are suspended during the assignment and creation of the work. Additionally, all work is donated to the Air Force without any permissible tax deductions.

Artists like Witt understand when joining the program it isn't about the money they will lose. It is about their work becoming part of the U.S. Air Force Art Collection which documents the story of the Air Force through the universal language of art.

During this visit, the three artists were able to fly in multiple aircraft and view various Air Force capabilities. They also witnessed an airdrop mission in a C-130J Super Hercules where water supplies were provided for allies.

In addition to Airmen and Soldiers, each artist expressed appreciation for the opportunity to meet Afghan air force members, aeromedical evacuation caretakers, Egyptian field hospital workers and Afghan school teachers and children.

"Kandahar was like a nonstop air show," said Kane. "We are civilian artists. We get to experience this and see the Airmen and the Army working 24 hours a day and witness these critical patients and caretakers. It's worth it to give back after seeing what we've experienced during this immersion."

This was Kane's second visit to Afghanistan and his 15th trip since being accepted into the program in 1997. His first visit was in May 1999 to South Korea.

Ramstein is a special place for Kane, as his artwork adorns an entire wall of the Heritage Hall in the 86th Airlift Wing headquarters building.

Kane explained that the painting took about six months to complete. General Bender was the wing commander during his initial visit and ideas became a painting that captured day-to-day activities at Ramstein.

"I focused on the wounded warrior mission and those that help, like the volunteers with the cookie bags, the funky ramp lights and the planes based here," Kane explained. "The tower, security forces, combat communications and NATO partnerships ... a little bit of everything to include the side paintings."

Kane expressed one regret about this piece.

"I didn't get the dentists and I'm sorry. It's frustrating, you're always going to miss somebody. So it's more about capturing the essence instead."

For Chris Hopkins, well-known for his Tuskegee Airmen portraits, being a part of the program is a family affair. His son, Justin Hopkins, was accepted into the program at 20 years old and his wife, Jan is a sculptor.

Interested in culture, Hopkins looks to create heartfelt paintings of the human reaction to things.

"I love the people," said Hopkins. "A Major who was teaching took us to an Afghan school ... these little girls learning English and computer skills were absolutely darling."

To do his period-capturing pieces, Hopkins does extensive research and works with anthropologists, conducts site visits and draws field sketches.

He's completed 12 works so far and plans to finish at least three more. These pieces are completed in addition to his commercial work.

Works of art created by eminent artists are historical and educational while highlighting the role and diverse capabilities of the U.S. Air Force to the military and the public.

Artists have been associated with U.S. military history since the Revolutionary War. For example, John Trumbuul's work of the Declaration of Independence is still represented today on the back of the two-dollar bill.

Today, there are more than 10,000 works in the Air Force Art Program and the Society of Illustrators has been joined by other organizations and independent artists to continue documenting Air Force personnel, equipment, locations and activities.

The largest showing of work is held at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base every other October where a black-tie event, also known as the Air Force Art Presentation , is co-hosted by the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force for participating artists during that period. This exhibit features approximately 230-260 works of art.

This display continues through January and the artwork is then brought back to the Pentagon for more exhibits and disbursed to various locations throughout the Air Force.

These paintings tell the Air Force story at any given time by hanging in the halls of the Pentagon, in museums and at Air Force bases around the world.

Kane, who always wears Air Force clothing, whether it's a hat, a unit t-shirt, or sweatshirts, shared his thoughts on why he is a part of this program.

"Outside of being married, this is the best thing that has ever happened to me," Kane explained. "The Air Force is my team and these trips are my backstage pass. This awesome to touch, feel and experience the Air Force -- you are who I root for."