Clemson Art Students in the Military

January 17, 2012

By Paige Glenn

Many people consider an artist to be one who is spontaneous and lives by personal expression, their goal being to produce unique representations of their individuality. So what happens when you place an artist in a context where such expression is discouraged? How does one express their personality and creativity while acting as part of a cohesive whole, such as a military unit? BFA senior and Air Force cadet Angela Newman and fellow senior and Navy reservist David Goerk have managed to be successful in both of these seemingly separate, yet connected aspects of their lives.

David Goerk, a BFA senior concentrating in sculpture, recently exhibited his senior work in the MFA gallery of Lee Hall before having to return to active duty in the Navy Reserves later this month. He says, “I haven’t even thought about leaving yet because I’m so busy with the show. I really think it will be a nice break once the show is over. The only thing I’m thinking about right now is art deadlines and art. My focus is really just to take care of this side right now”. This seems to be the attitude of both Angela and David.  Both art and their involvement in the military are very important aspects of their lives, but it seems they prefer to separate the two.

Angela Newman, a BFA senior in printmaking, has grown up in a military family her entire life and will be stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy this summer for 1-3 years (coincidentally, Italy is a hub for making, viewing and studying art). Angela says that while she tries to find a balance between art making and the military, there are a few aspects that remain constant no matter what, such as attention to detail, work ethic, and ambition. She uses her art, which is very intuitive in nature, to express the importance of personality and identity, things generally suppressed in a military environment.

Both Angela and David have found ways in which having an interest in art and art making has aided them in their military endeavors. David feels that he is more aware of worldly events and specifically more aware of his place in the world and his role as an artist, a navy reservist, and a member of society. Angela states, “When I’m in my ROTC mindset, I don’t think about art, but my creativity is always there. I’m good at approaching a problem from a different angle and generating a lot of ideas on how to resolve it.”

Many artists, past and present, have created politically charged artwork. In art history courses, we constantly debate and analyze controversial artwork that is often a reaction to some sort of political unrest. Everyone comes to a piece of art with a different viewpoint and different background. It is rare for the art department to have two artists involved in the military and to get their viewpoint on such pieces. When asked how the military/ROTC has influenced the way she approaches a political artwork, Angela responds, “I try to approach political art with an open mind that recognizes both sides of the argument. When negative statements are made about the military specifically, I remember that there are issues worth fighting (and dying) for, but also the huge responsibility that our military leaders have in wielding such awesome power and the consequences of those decisions. There’s no clear right and wrong. Sometimes I agree with statements that are made and sometimes I have to bite my tongue.”

While it may appear that it is impossible to be both an artist and a cadet or navy reservist, it seems Angela and David have found a reasonable balance and try to use the two unique experiences to their fullest. “There are a lot of stereotypes of artists as drug-loving hippies and military members as killer robots, but I don’t fit into either of those categories,” says Angela. David says that had he not gone through the military he would be a completely different person and the artwork would be completely different, although he may never understand how. The Navy has pushed him to enter grad school and further pursue his work. He says, “ I started Clemson to get a degree and put it in an officer packet, but it made me realize that I want to go the art side. I’m 28 now, and I’ve switched directions. After grad school, I want to teach. I think that’s what I want to do.“