Michael Fay is a war artist in a city crazy for war art. Like war itself, though, the picture isn't that simple.
Although he is a Marine Reservist who has done everything from selling car insurance to substitute teaching, Fay is foremost an artist -- "one of the big guns" of working combat artists, according to Lt. John T. Dyer, curator at the Marine Corps Museum in Washington.
It helps that Fay lives in Fredericksburg, a Civil War-mad city on the banks of the Rappahannock River where every third business downtown is either devoted to huge paintings of that epic campaign or at the very least sells books, carvings, T-shirts or soap commemorating it.
But to Fay, that stuff isn't the real thing. "I don't call it art," he sniffed. "I have no use for it."
That's because Fay is one of the few Americans who gets paid -- not often, granted -- to travel to war zones and create art. And there is just one rule the military sets down for its artists: Record only what you see with your own eyes.
For the second time in a year, Fay may have the chance to do just that. After three months in and around Afghanistan, Fay returned to civilian life last spring. He was recalled to active duty this month as the prospect of war in Iraq grew ever more certain.
He expects to be shipped off soon to the Middle East to do what combat artists have been doing since the Civil War. For an unknown period, that will mean an end to his daily morning downtown coffee klatch, his substitute teaching gigs at local high schools and the hard part -- visits from his 16-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in Maine.
But Fay, who was the only Marine artist in Afghanistan and would be one of two covering the Iraqi campaign, loves the work. Working in oil, watercolor and pen and ink, he does "slice of life stuff" -- Marines on patrol or napping or returning exhausted to base. He's not much into immortalizing the combat or the casualties.
Nor is he into abstraction. Processing images of war and the personal intensity of combat strips away some of the more conceptual instincts that can motivate art, he said.
"It's such a human, primal experience, your core nature comes out. There's a sense of immediacy," said Fay, 49, who speaks animatedly, gesturing, laughing to accent certain points and sprinkling his conversation with stories from history or his own life.
"All that collateral noise you're trying to push away in regular life goes away," he said. "Let's put it this way -- you don't need meditation to get rid of it."
Like the Marines, the other branches of the military have tiny combat art programs, sending one or two artists, if any, to record recent wars. Curators say the issue is money.
Hundreds of artists covered U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, and many more covered World War II, such a popular war that it drew willing participants from a much wider range of the population, said Col. H. Avery Chenoweth of Ashburn, a 75-year-old retired Marine who served as a combat artist in Vietnam and was called back at 62 to cover the first Persian Gulf War.
"The high point was World War II, when all the artists in America went to war,'' said Chenoweth, who wrote "Art of War: Eyewitness U.S. Combat Art from the Revolution through the 20th Century," published last summer.
Like Fay, most of them have been realists.
"It's a funny thing," said Dyer, himself a combat artist in Vietnam and later in Europe and Lebanon. "Even if you take an artist who may have leaned toward doing a lot of abstract art, when they get an assignment in combat art, their work becomes reportorial.
"I have a feeling I'd love to have a few fine abstract pieces, just to show we're not stuffed shirts -- as long as they're well done."
Though his home -- a tiny guesthouse believed to have been built in the 1700s -- is impeccably kept, Fay is an informal guy, crossing his eyes for humorous effect during conversation and puttering around in his socks making tea. On a recent day he sported tousled dark hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee, both of which would have to be trimmed when he "goes active."
Fay is a history buff who combs his neighborhood after it rains to see if any old ammunition has surfaced. His home is decorated with his drawings, though he keeps the working copies of his war art in a wooden chest in the kitchen. While in Afghanistan, he sketched scenes quickly and took photographs, later producing more than 50 pieces.
He views his mission in different ways. Although he wants to record for future generations such technical details as what weapons are used and how soldiers hold them, Fay also looks at scenes strictly as an artist, searching for the juxtaposition of light and dark or using such techniques as putting a soldier at the edge of the frame to suggest a broader space.
As with any other soldiers, what they see can stay with them in unwelcome ways.
Dyer talked about Richard M. Gibney, a well-known World War II combat artist whom the Marine Corps approached about 1990 to see "if there was anything he wanted to get off his chest."
Gibney, a muralist, at first said no but later changed his mind and produced 50 more pieces from that war. "He said he was still getting the violence of World War II out of his system," Dyer said.
Fay tries not to intellectualize too much. "After all, it is art, so you don't use that part of your brain."