Scott Waters has an unusual vantage point for an artist. Over the last two decades he has created a body of work that both supports and tears down the mythology of soldiering. For the three years before that, he lived it. Twenty-three years ago the artist served as an infantryman in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).
In 1979, Waters’ family emigrated from northern England and settled in Trail, B.C. He took a rather roundabout path to the arts, joining the military out of high school. That early military experience has framed much of his work. There was clearly enough turbulence through those few years to fill a thousand canvasses. He explains, “One of the reasons I made the paintings is that I have a lot of unresolved feelings and unanswered questions about my time in the military. In one way, the paintings are just a methodology. The physical act of painting was a way to work through these incidents to try to come to some resolution about them.”
In August 2006, Waters travelled to Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, N.B., to participate in the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP). Thirty-eight years earlier, the Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program (CAFCAP) was created to ensure there was an artistic record of Canada’s military history. Lack of funding resulted in the program’s termination in 1995, but six years later it was resurrected as CFAP.
Waters comments on the differences between today’s soldiers and those who served during times of peace. “The soldiers I painted in Gagetown were at the beginning of their six-month training cycle in preparation for Afghanistan. I was interested in seeing how my view of the military had changed over the years, and, yes, it had changed dramatically. These soldiers knew they were going to Afghanistan, and they were not joining for a steady paycheque. There was a purpose. The mentality was different from my time.”
He paints on sheets of plywood and is increasingly supporting his images with text. “One of the reasons I do the writing is simply because I don’t think the visuals are enough…. All mediums have their limits,” he explains. The light in his final work is hard and his composition unique, with blocks of brash colour dividing the surface in flat zones. He lays on acrylic and oil using the knots and grain of the wood as elements in the finished artwork. Waters often paints extreme close-ups of the faces of infantryman. His art is graphic, powerful and sometimes uncomfortable.
These days Waters has taken a break from painting people, and says, “I hope to be going to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in April or May with CFAP…” and although he does not wish to categorize or presuppose his subject, he does have an interest in exploring still life. Waters is in the unusual position of being able to straddle both worlds, “I think I will regularly address the military in my art…. It is sometimes difficult for me. Soldiers would view me as someone who a long time ago was a soldier, but now is an artist.”
That he is.
His art is part of the Canadian War Museum travelling exhibition A Brush With War: Military Art From Korea To Afghanistan and will be on view at the museum until March 20, 2011. The exhibition then travels to Victoria, B.C., and Calgary, Alta.
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