Today, I interview artist, Brian Kennedy. Brian talks to us about how his passion for art began, what led him to serve in Afghanistan, and how he was able to channel his art into combat zones and back home.
Where are you originally from?
Originally, I'm from Syracuse, NY.
When did your interest in art begin?
My interest in art began as a young child at the age of five or six. I found myself drawing alot of pictures that I saw, including cartoons I'd watch and landscapes that surrounded me. I also loved Legos because not only could I make anything with them, but they also helped stimulate my creativity. I grew up with a learning disability (my short term memory was/is terrible) My father knew that I was a visually oriented person, so when I couldn't make sense of math or numbers, he'd walk me through it with Legos. Basically, I could visually see the shapes, rather than numbers, on paper.
Did you study art in any type of academic setting?
I began a more advanced academic setting at an early stage, in fifth grade I was sent to a gifted school in Syracuse, called Blodgett. The school was full of very bright, intellectual children who excelled at different areas such as music, writing, drawing, and painting, like myself. I found this to be a very comfortable setting for creativity. I remember, at the age of fifteen, studying the Renaissance Masters like Da Vinci and Michelangelo. I was so impressed that I began to mimic their styles. I even drew the Mona Lisa in two days! Later that year I drew a baseball player hitting a home run and it was chosen to be displayed for the 50th anniversary of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.
Is there a specific medium or type of art you feel you excel at over others?
I love it all. But I grow bored of doing the same things. Like portraits or landscapes. I am constantly trying to create art in new and innovative ways. For instance, I like to paint pictures of people and things that others can relate to. However, I want them to see how I interpret them from my eyes. Strangely, I interpret color and size as right angles. Certain colors push forward and others pull back. So in a lot of my work, you will see that right angles sometimes make up the entire piece. I like the idea of mixing traditional drawing and painting with digital images. For example, some artists work like the old masters, drawing and painting on canvas or paper. Others work only digitally with Photoshop or Illustrator. I like to combine them because they bring different things to the table. So sometimes I will draw a picture on my iPad and then print them out on transparent sheets. I will print the same image on 3 or 4 sheets and then hand paint tonal values on each one using more blues and greens on one, yellows and reds on one, and blacks and whites on another. Then I mount each one on mats, and stack them on top of one another. What I end up with is a three dimensional image that is transparent, but the color looks like its weaving in and out of the image. Thus, truly mixing traditional drawing and painting with digital imaging.
What is your favorite type of painting?
My absolute favorite is abstract painting. I don't call it abstract, however. I call it: Art Therapy for Artists. The reason being that sometimes artists spend so much time trying to create something that is ultra- realistic. And although I do excel at that, it's mentally and physically exhausting. I often find myself stepping away from those types of projects and just painting from within. The sub-conscience is a very powerful thing, and I often end up with huge paintings that I'm not even thinking about. I just "let go". And that is by far my favorite, because it's essentially your soul crying out. It has a far deeper meaning then illustrating anything from life. It is truly unique and one of a kind, just like our DNA.
When did you decide to join the Army? Was there something specific that inspired you to do so?
I decided to join the army in 2009. Prior to me joining the military I was sort of a party maniac and I really had no direction. I drank heavily and did alot of drugs. I could feel myself slipping. I became depressed, losing all of my direction and inspiration. I was dating a girl at the time who broke my heart, and after the breakup, things just got worse. I needed direction in my life, and I needed distraction from the pain I was experiencing.
What was your highest rank, and what job were you assigned during your deployment?
My rank was/is Sergeant. I am currently the Communications Chief for the 222MP Company in Rochester, NY. I attended Basic Training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. My M.O.S (Military Occupation Specialty) school was at Fort Gordon in North Carolina. That was a total of 19 weeks. Since then, I've attended many other military schools such as Combative's Level I (hand to hand combat), Combat Life Saver Courses. I also attended many schools on different military radio types, as well as computer networking. My position in Afghanistan was Assistant to the Public Affairs Officer. I created artwork that included portraits of soldiers, murals and newsletters for 2-108th Infantry Battalion. I also designed the Company Coin.
How did your art in Afghanistan begin?
Being an artist for the 2-108th Infantry Battalion actually began at the national training center at Fort Irwin, California. It’s where we were sent to prepare for our deployment. We trained there because the terrain, temperature and many other factors were so close to that of Afghanistan. My M.O.S actually has nothing to do with drawing at all. My close friend, 2LT Jason Uhlig, was the public affairs officer. His job is comparable to that of a writer and photographer of sorts. He worked directly for the XO Major Flynn and the Battalion Commander Joseph Beihler. I was drawing in my sketch pad one day, and Jason showed it to the Commander and the XO. He had an idea that we could pair up and work together. I would create artwork while also working with the translators who spoke Farsi. We would then create anti-terrorist propaganda. This in turn could be given out to the civilian population and we could catch the bad guys. It could be compared to something like a Missing Person's add on a milk carton, or a Wanted Add for a fugitive.
You have been praised in your hometown for a specific art piece. Could you describe this piece and how it came about?
The Dinosaur BBQ piece was originally created in Afghanistan. I was inspired by the old WW2 pinup models who were painted on the sides of planes. I wanted to do something like that but modernize it. I remember eating in the DEFAC and I saw a bottle of Dinosaur BBQ sauce. It took me back to being safe at home and enjoying Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, so I sketched up a little image of the logo, but instead of the dinosaur holding a plate of food and a towel, I replaced it with an M-4 Carbine, had it smoking a cigar, and put dog tags and a Kevlar helmet and combat boots on it. I showed the sketch to Jason Uhlig, and he recommended I paint it on the concrete bunkers that protect us from incoming fire. Later that night, I replaced my assault bag, which consisted mostly of ammo, with art supplies that were sent to me from friends and family back home. I had a flashlight that I could attach to my head, and I went out that night and painted it on the wall. The next day, people came out, saw the logo, and were stoked! I could see that it really brought them joy and took their minds off of where they were. It was the first drawing I did on the bunkers. And at the time, no one knew who did it.
You were coined a “warrior graffiti artist” while deployed. What, in your opinion, does this mean? Do you embrace this title?
I do very much embrace this title as it represents so much of who I was and who I have yet to become. In the beginning, no one knew who was painting all the murals on the walls in Afghanistan. Thus the idea of being a graffiti artist, I felt like I was working in secret. I was so stressed and full of fear. Other times direly bored. I couldn't sleep so I told myself that I would do something productive that would serve as an outlet. At first it was for me, but later seeing the joy it brought the other soldiers, I realized they were created for all of us to share. The “warrior” part was based on being a soldier, but when I think of the word warrior, I think of the Warrior Ethos which states, “I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit, I will never leave a fallen comrade.” We live by a code and that is very much a part of being a soldier and very much a part of who I am and what I will always bring to the table.
You sketched everyone at the tactical operations center, and even sketched portraits of Afghan National Police. Why was it important to you to sketch the police?
There is nothing like being an artist, and what separates them from a photographer or a film crew is this: drawing and painting encompasses what the artist is visually seeing, that goes it into their mind, and the feelings become part of what comes out on the other end through the hand and onto the paper or canvas. Essentially, it is filtered through the artist and the end product is much more intimate and personal and unique. As for sketching the Afghan Police, there's some of that I cant talk about. But I can say that most of it was anti terrorist propaganda. In other words, they were used to catch bad guys. It would be an image of a mosque on fire, schools being shut down, and hospitals closed. In the center of the image would be a picture of the terrorist who was responsible. The Afghan National Police and Army would be in the background with a phone ringing. The message on the artwork was written in farce, and it would say, "If you see this guy, call the Afghan National Police and they will help you." People were amazed at the portraits and drawings. They couldn't believe what they were seeing.
What about Afghan culture and life particularly struck you?
What struck me was how much they didn't have. It made me grateful for the family and friends I have and the things I've worked so hard for. Their country is vastly different than ours. It saddened me to see people suffer so badly, especially the children and women. They would tie their hats to their feet sometimes because they had no shoes. There were children with chemical burns on their bodies from their parents making homemade explosives. As for a people, I found them to be very humble and they would help anyone if they could. I didn't want to leave because I knew there was so much we could to do help improve their lives. I was attached to an Infantry unit, but the crazy thing about it is that we ran almost 80 humanitarian missions to help the civilians with food, medical treatment and clothing. I remember coming home to Syracuse and I was at a restaurant. I overheard someone complaining about their food and their chair. It made me so angry because Americans don't realize how good they have it. I got up and told the man that he should be glad he has money to go out and eat at a restaurant and that he has two arms and two legs. I think I put things in perspective for him.
Was there a particular project you started on upon your return home?
When I returned home, I was saddened. I thought about all the men and women who had served and died over there. I felt guilty about making it back unscathed. I tried to make sense of it. I thought to myself, what can I do to give back? What would those who lost their lives want me to do? I realized that they would want me to live on and do what I love most; creating artwork. And more importantly, creating artwork that could help other men and women who served. The first thing I did was to re-draw the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que logo and put it on a t-shirt. To date, that t-shirt has raised over $27,000 for Veteran programs, such as Warrior Salute, and The Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Jason Uhlig and I also created a t-shirt for Syracuse University that raised thousands more.
What made you want to join the National Guard upon your return?
I've always been with the Army National Guard since the beginning. I like the idea of being able to serve your country and go to school, work a job or whatever it is you want to do in your free time. Both of my grandfathers served in WWII. I intend on continuing the tradition.
What are your thoughts on the treatment of veterans dealing with PTSD and TBIs in the VA hospital system?
The VA Hospital system is entirely too slow. Why should men and women who have served their country honorably and have risked their lives... why should they have to wait or pay for health care at all? In my opinion, they should be able to go to any doctor, dentist, or therapist at low or no cost at all. Why do we have to be filtered like cattle into one facility? This also goes for homelessness. There is no excuse at all why any of these Veterans should come home with no place to live or no job to work. As a matter of fact, instead of having people focus on how we are broken or a risk to certain types of employment, why not focus on the fact that they have a better work ethic than most civilians? These men and women work 16 hour shifts, back to back, and are incredibly loyal and hard-working. If you served your country, you should be taken care of. Period.
Could you explain the inception and concept behind Iron Art? What inspired you to start this company?
Iron Art was created in 2012 in Afghanistan by Jason Uhlig and I. We wanted to start a graphic design company that could help Veterans. The "Iron" part of Iron Art came from our battalion motto : Blood and Iron Never Forget. The artwork and concepts would be solid, like iron. The logo consists of a nautical compass which would represent being able to go in any direction, as well as versatility. The second image was a drawing compass. This represented Jason and I and how we worked together for a common goal. The needle represents Jason being solid and grounded as well as being able to control the pencil part, which represented me.
Have you seen a shift or progress in veterans who engage in art therapy? Has Iron Art helped you as a veteran since you got started on it?
I have seen a dramatic shift in progress in veterans who engage in art therapy. As a matter of fact, when I returned to my civilian job, I wanted to speak with an art therapist. I met Jennifer Delucia, who is an Art therapist for The Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester NY. I began speaking with her every Tuesday for a one-on-one session to talk out some of my issues. While talking, I would also be drawing. This helped me tremendously. In addition, I was invited to an open art group on Wednesdays with the other veterans. At first, I did what I usually do; draw from in my head. But a few weeks in, I looked up from the paper I was drawing on and realized that I was at a table full of Veterans from all different branches of the military and service times. Instead of drawing from within, I began to focus my attention on the other veterans. I started to do black and white charcoal portraits of them. The best part about it was that I would ask them questions about themselves and there service. They felt comfortable talking with me because I myself was a combat veteran. The more they talked, the better idea of who they were and experienced came to surface. In turn, it made their drawing even better and more intimate. Eventually, I was asked to paint a mural for the Veterans Outreach Center. It's called "The Wall Of Honor". It's a 20 ft wall attached to the Richards House, which is a home for Veterans recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. I put it out to the media that I'd like family and friends or people who are currently serving or who have served in the past to submit photos. The results were astonishing. I received close to 200 submissions. These photos span all the way back from the Civil War up until now. One by one, I'm putting all of there faces on that wall. Once the weather gets warmer, I will paint every last one of them.
Is there something pivotal you learned about yourself while in the service, and did it influence your art?
I've learned that unlike anything else, art, drawing, and painting are such a powerful healing tools. It doesn't matter how well you draw. What matters most is what you find out about yourself and everything around you by creating. It creates bonds. It builds bridges. It takes a certain fearlessness to be willing to put your work out there for the world to judge. I remember seeing these soldiers come back from sixteen hour missions, their faces dirty and sandy, and I could see that they were exhausted. When they came closer, they'd stop and look at the artwork that I had created. I could see the their expressions immediately change. They didn't look as tired. And they smiled. They began conversing about what they were seeing in front of them. They could have just walked by and went to sleep, but they didn't. It was then that I knew I was doing something special, something truly unique and life changing. I think that being in the military gave me drive and determination. It kept me focused and it made me believe that I was capable of doing things that I physically and mentally never thought possible. I was proud to be an American and give back to my country. In the army, I felt that I was part of something unique and a family extended beyond my blood. Experiences like those push me to continue my pursuits as an artist as well as a soldier.
What advice would you give a young artist?
Never give up. Don't ever throw away any of your sketches or drawings. Don't be afraid to share with other people and other artists. If you ever become discouraged about anything that you've created, use that anger or frustration to your advantage. Let it drive you to become even better, and push through to the other side. Becoming an artist is more than just drawing something and forgetting about it. It's about learning from what you've done in the past. The best thing about being an artist is that your artwork is never truly finished. Things can always be changed or manipulated, and things can always evolve and become better.
What is next for you and for Iron Art?
Well thats a good question. I'm currently working three different. jobs. My main job is an IT tech for CDS Monarch. I'm also currently serving in the New York State Army National Guard and working Iron Art on the side. What I'd love more than anything is to be able to work Iron Art full-time. I'd like to find a grant or a business loan that will help me pay the bills if I decide to really follow my dreams. I work 40 hours a week, then go home and paint my ass off until I go to bed and wake up and do it all over again. I'd really like Iron Art to expand with other artists besides myself who may or may not be veterans. This Spring and Summer, I've been given permission by Wall Therapy to paint a mural on a three story building in Rochester, NY. I would also like to have a gallery opening that consists of artwork that is a mix traditional drawing and painting, with digital imaging and photography. For example, have you ever looked at particular piece of artwork and thought to yourself how was that done? Well lately I've been doing a lot of digital drawing (in other words drawing on my iPad with my finger) The program I use allows me to export whatever drawing I've done as a video. This allows the viewer to see the entire process from start to finish. Now imagine a gallery full of HD Monitors that allow the viewer to come up and interact with the artwork. They could press play and watch it be created.
Visit the Iron Art website at: www.ironart315.com
To learn more about Brian and Iron Art, google search the following:
"Iron Art 315", "Sgt. Brian Kennedy", "Combat Dino", or "Military Otto."