About one hour from Kandahar, Afghanistan, the artist walked with soldiers and bomb-sniffing dogs on the lookout for the enemy and minefields. There were inclines of dirt to hike over and grapevines to avoid.
“There was actually a vineyard with grapes growing along dirt mounds,” recalls Master Sgt. Martin Cervantez. “The soldiers were doing patrols, up and over. But they were steep, and the dog handler had to lift the dogs.”
Cervantez, 43, goes into battle with his fellow soldiers, but he makes sketches and takes photographs.
Back in his spacious studio at Fort Belvoir, Cervantez, the Army’s only official artist, tries to capture what he observed, felt and heard.
“I go through the sketches and photos,” he says. “What do I think would be visually appealing? What would capture the soldiers’ experience? I want to capture the soldiers’ perspective so they have something to grab onto.”
Cervantez is heir to a tradition of official Army artists dating to World War I, when the Army sent eight artists to France to record the actions of the U.S. forces. During World War II, a War Art Unit was formed, and since then, with the exception of the Korean War, there have been authorized artists in the field. More than 13,000 works of art by official artists and civilians will be part of the National Museum of the U.S. Army, set to open in 2015 at Fort Belvoir.
“It is just a different way of documenting the history. They immerse themselves in the experience and then incorporate all they see into the painting,” says Sarah G. Forgey, the curator of the Army Art Collection.
“Patrolling the Vineyards” is on an easel in Cervantez’s studio. The painting shows American soldiers and Afghan police marching together. Cervantez makes larger figures as they advance to the front of his canvas.
A self-taught artist, Cervantez enlisted in the Army in July 1986, right after high school. “I came into the Army as an illustrator. I had no idea that job or this one existed,” he says, standing in the airy room, dressed in camouflage fatigues.
Cervantez says he loves the chaos of the field and the silence of his studio. But he listens to music to help him create. His playlist includes Lacuna Coil, Avenged Sevenfold and Chris Isaak.
His most recent deployment to Afghanistan ended in April. For three months, he spent eight to 14 hours a day on patrol.
“When I showed up, it was the fastest I had ever gotten to the field,” Cervantez says. “I was out in 24 hours. The first couple of weeks, there was nothing but rain. The dust was a quagmire.”
He accompanied patrols from village to village. His experience paid off when he correctly pointed out that some fresh straw was probably hiding some enemy AK-47s.
He has been deployed three times as an artist — twice to Afghanistan, once to Haiti.
A tall man with a shaved head, he carries about 110 pounds of military equipment on his 205-pound frame when he is in the field. His 4-by-6-inch sketchbook and a lightweight Nikon camera don’t add much weight.
“I did a few sketches when under fire,” he says. “I love the Army, and I look at my job as a professional sport. Would you rather be on the bench or in the game?’’