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'Hey, private, give me 50 brushstrokes'

By Daniel GrantSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2003



Up at reveille, 90 soldiers file into Fort Meade in Maryland - pencils, charcoal, pastels, and boxes of watercolors in hand - ready for another 8-hour day of drawing, luminosity, perspective, and color theory. We're in the Army now? All of these enlistees are enrolled in the military's one and only art academy, the Defense Information School, known by the acronym DINFOS, where they will spend three intensive months learning the basics of art, computer graphics, photography, and video editing.

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Three months is not much time to develop into the new Matisse. "The military doesn't want to spend more money to have them there longer," says Army Sgt. 1st Class Elzie Golden, a staff combat artist and former instructor at DINFOS.

No need for too much painterliness. Most of the school's graduates will work on mundane visual tasks, such as designing training manuals, creating posters for conferences and other events, drawing maps, and utilizing satellite-beamed data to generate up-to-the-minute battlefield descriptions for military briefings - "the down and dirty jobs," Sergeant Golden says.

While at school, students learn to make images based on photographs. There is no drawing from life, and little opportunity for what the military calls "freehand" and what the rest of the world thinks of as art.

DINFOS is not set up to help artist-soldiers find themselves, "but you can aspire to do greater things," Golden notes. He himself won the military's Artist of the Year award in 2002 for his painting "Tracking Bin Laden."

Four of the five branches of the US military (all but the Coast Guard) send enlistees to DINFOS to train them in skills of visual communication. The school is larger than just its art program; it also provides instruction in journalism and broadcasting (each branch of the armed forces has its own newspapers and radio and television stations), as well as videography (for training films).

Some of the school's graduates will become combat artists like Golden, creating sketches and paintings of major military events or depicting everyday scenes of soldierly life, while the majority will learn how to produce still or interactive presentations in two or three dimensions for military planners.

"Ideas might take volumes to explain," says Lt. Greg Kuntz, an instructor in multimedia at DINFOS. "An artist can take complex ideas and put them into an easy-to-understand visual format."

A small number of the school's art students are college graduates with degrees in art, but "80 percent of the students never had any interest in art, never touched a pencil for drawing since they were kids," says Gene Snyder, former Army staff sergeant and instructor at the school, who is now a civilian photographic resource manager at the Army's Center for Military History in Washington. The center has a collection of more than 15,000 artworks created primarily by soldiers. (All five branches of the armed forces have their own art collections.)

For these DINFOS students, "the visual arts is just something to do," Mr. Snyder says. He himself was not an art-school graduate before entering the military, but his interest in art was not new. He had excelled in art classes in high school and went to the Maryland Institute College of Art, but "only for one semester, because I ran out of money. So I joined the Army."

After three years in the infantry, Snyder was accepted into the military art program, eventually working himself into the position of full-time combat artist stationed at the Center for Military History from 1994 to '97. "It was great," he says. "I'd get up in the morning, come here and paint all day." He became an instructor at DINFOS in 1997.

Civilians, he notes, are often "taken aback that the Army is cultured or sensitive enough to have an art collection," while members of the military are surprised to learn that the Pentagon runs an art school. Some don't exactly get the value of the military recording its heritage in art. One such person was a base commander in Panama, who kicked Snyder out of a Cuban refugee camp because he thought he was documenting "something that shouldn't be seen by the public."

An artist, like a prophet, is not without honor, except in his own regiment.

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