From Pearl Harbor to Enola Gay

Life has been too frantic in the last couple of weeks to give me any opportunity to blog. Being deep in the final syrupy throes of home purchase, with the kids off school for Easter, along with holding down my day job (kind of) – there has been almost no chance to do any drawing, or much energy or enthusiasm. I feel a bit like I am failing at all things equally well. Which is good, or bad, I am not sure which. Too tired to decide.

I feel guilty mostly for my kids though. They are tired of the homeless home-hunting limbo. Their toys have been packed in boxes for the last eight months. They got a trampoline for Christmas – still in the box. They got new bikes for Christmas – boxed and in the locked shed. They have heard the promise of a new house. We drive by it frequently – just so they can get a look at the jungle gym in the yard. While I moan about all the lawn I’ll be mowing, and my wife talks about house parties – in the back seat, the kids have their faces pressed to the glass – looking for telltale signs of other kids in the hood. They are done waiting.

I did this sketch of poor waiting Edward during one mammoth session of paper signing at the Realtor’s office. I had just finished all of my signatures and while the fax machine was whirring I took this opportunity. Ed doesn’t get a lot of screen time, so when he does get handed a device, he falls into it. Nothing else exists in the world. In this sketch he has made a total mind-link with the Bike Baron app. And look at that posture. What a thespian. “I want you to show, bored indifference, with just a hint of disdain for your surroundings – wonderful dahling”.

Towards the end of the Easter week I had to burn a vacation day to cover for an unforeseen nanny blackout. We could have all stayed home to do some essential packing of stuff into boxes – but we didn’t.

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for the National Air and Space Museum holds 120 aircraft and more than 140 space exploration exhibits. It is the perfect place for a dad to show off his shallow knowledge of all things flight related – while being constantly probed by daft questions. Why wasn’t all history this easy and interesting to learn? The heck with the Russian Revolution and the Roman Empire. And forget the ancient Egyptians and the Civil War. Give me stuff that flies every time. Give me rockets, spaceships, gliders, satellites and wooden biplanes – throw in a few sandwiches, some fruit, and chocolate Easter eggs – and I’ll show you a day well wasted with the kids.

Over the course of three hours we wandered from exhibit to exhibit with me waxing eloquent on each one, and only periodically being corrected by the kids who would also read the plaque. Eventually as their legs began to tire, I sat us all down with a faint hope that I might manage a sketch. One dad alone with two kids with sore legs – it didn’t seem likely. Still – preparation is the key. I had chosen my spot carefully. I had remembered the sketchpad. And most essentially I had the Easter goodies. So while they sat and read books and ate “chocolate bunny eggs”? I got started.

Much of our history of flight and space exploration has been the result of military necessity. So as you wander around past the Japanese NIK2, the German Focke-Wolfe 190 fighter, the North Korean MIG-15, the U.S. F105-D Thunderchief fighter-bomber, and the U.S. Poseidon C-3 nuclear missile with its 14 nuclear warheads, it is hard not to spot a trend. We started killing one another from planes and in planes within a decade of discovering we could fly. Much of the museum is about bringing death from the sky. This all led to a great deal of questions within questions from the kids – most of them ending in the “why?” category. Good questions – difficult answers.

As the kids munched their way south through their bags of eggs I sketched the Enola Gay. It is interesting then that for all the questioning neither of them asked about the B29 super fortress – massive death bringer that it is. It sits shiny silver and angelic, in the midst of all of the other planes in their drab military camouflage. It doesn’t even look threatening. It looks like it should be dropping aid parcels or delivering astronauts to spaceports. It is a truly beautiful airplane.

I am as hawkish about defense and necessary war as the next realist, but even so there is something about the display for homage of this particular plane that brought death to so many innocents that leaves me with a tinge of unease even as I revel in the details as I sketch her. Here among the wolves is a murderer in wolves’ clothing. And I know and understand and appreciate all of the logic that went into dropping that first nuke on Hiroshima. And I understand as I sit in a section of the museum dedicated to the bringing of death that it is only a matter of scale. But is it right to idolize it here? I am not sure. And I am glad in the end that Josie and Edward don’t ask about it.

A week later and I was back at the museum again.

There is a hangar at the back of the museum where the restoration work takes place. From a viewing gallery you can look down at whatever project is being contemplated or tackled by the museums restoration staff. A week earlier, Josie, Ed and I had looked down upon a U.S. WW2 float plane which looked as if it had been ridden hard and put away wet, then left to dry in the sun for a dozen years. The paint had faded to a flat dull aluminum color. The fabric was punctured and torn. The windows were cracked, broken or missing. It was an urban sketchers dream.

I asked. They said okay. I took a day off work specially.

Now I get to eat a little crow for all my lily-livered liberalness a couple of paragraphs ago with the Enola Gay. The thing is – here is the thing – this plane, this U.S. Navy seaplane, this JRS-1 was there at Pearl Harbor – at the other end of the conflict. She along with the rest of her flight was somehow spared on that infamous day. And on Dec. 8 – the day after the attack – this JRS-1 took off to try to locate any of the six Japanese carriers or one of their four hundred or so airplanes. She took off completely unarmed. I was in awe.

The hangar is a scholarly place. It is filled with people skilled in different areas of aircraft restoration and treatment. Everything is meticulously planned. People design using pencil and paper. New parts are tooled to perfection to imitate and replace. It is silent save for the sound of quiet focused conversation. The restoration team at the museum could not have been more helpful. They understood implicitly what I was after. I wanted to draw and observe. They left me pretty much to my own devices and gave me the space to do both.

Lt. Cmdr. Harvey Waldron, USN (ret.), a veteran JRS-1 crewman

Having been treated none too gently in its last four decades this last surviving JRS-1 sits awaiting its rebirth. There were originally 17 JRS-1 seaplanes purchased by the U.S. Navy. Ten of them were stationed at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. As ragged as it is now, it still has a rare beauty. The plane is a feast for the artist’s eyes. It is tactile and real and has a history that you can almost feel simply by standing near it.

There is a short interview with Lt Col. Harvey Waldron that is worth watching. He was the radioman on this plane when it went up in search of the Japanese Navy. He talks about the sneak attack, and of rescuing wounded oil-covered sailors and hopelessly attempting to clean the oil off. He slept that night on the hangar floor waiting to fly out the next day hunting aircraft carriers.

You would think given seven hours I would have created half a dozen sketches easily, but in the end I came away with only three. I didn’t leave the hangar. Not a drink or a snack. I didn’t stop drawing. Planes – like motorcycles and cars – are difficult to draw well. The errors scream on the paper, so there is a lot of measuring and re-measuring and adjusting and second-guessing. The perspective flummoxed me at times. The horizon was elusive. Everything suddenly seemed to curve. I even tried drawing with only one eye open for a while to try and pin things down. It was a slow war of attrition in which I eventually achieved a bloody stalemate.

Over the past two weeks my life has been made even busier than usual creating commemorative D-Day art for a European newspaper, which will remain nameless because, well, this is a Washington Post blog. It has been interesting and challenging. I have been rooting through tens of thousands of D-Day photographs looking for reference material. The illustrations have gone okay. But copying from photographs taken 70 years ago by people who risked their lives to take them just feels wrong to me. What life can I capture from those?

Here’s a flickr link.

Drawing and experiencing at the same time is the key to real Urban Sketching. As I sit wrestling with the U.S. Navy seaplane I realize that – hard as it is to draw– I am stupidly happy doing it. Even 72 years removed from Pearl Harbor its history is very much alive. Drawing it from a photograph would be easier but just not be the same. So ends my diatribe for this week.

I want to finish by highlighting someone who typifies good live illustration skills. Nicole Little is a Toronto-based artist with a prodigious and varied skill-set and a broad and diverse portfolio of material. She has created what I think should be considered her own urban sketching genre in a series of portraits of commuters drawn on lottery tickets. I have packaged up a few here just to give you a feel for their general awesomeness.

And here is a fat juicy quote from Ms. Little herself on the joy of commuter sketching. “Over the past decade, I have come to think of (Toronto Transit) as an extension of my studio. It is where I honed my drawing skills and it has become my ideal place to sketch, even if it is a little bumpy sometimes,” she says in her flickr bio.

If you really need any more motivation than that to pick up a pencil you can see Nicole’s full range or talents on display here on flickr.

Nicole’s flickr address.

That is it for another week. The same rules apply. If you are brave enough to pick up a pencil and start drawing there is no telling where it will lead. Send me what you create and I’ll do my best to feature it right here. Luck out there.

Got a question? Ask me. richard.johnson@washpost.com.

Want to see more of my work? www.newsillustrator.com.

Richard is a field artist and visual journalist and works as a senior graphics editor at The Washington Post.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local
Next Story
Richard Johnson · April 15