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  • Writer's pictureR.J Dyson

Art Behind the Lines

I have this book of old sketches and carvings and prints from the Civil War era. I don't remember if it was a birthday or Christmas gift from my sister and bro-in-law, but it's full of the unknown stories behind the art and the artists / journalists, "Specials," that struggled to bring the war to life beyond the front lines.


I used to stare at these old drawings in elementary school history books, amazed at how they could create with canon fire rocking the earth around them. We're not talking photographs here. Most were sketches on the battlefield with handwritten notes in the margins, sent to the papers up North (some to the South before supplies ran thin) with finishing artists ready to recreate their work for the front page.


These Specials: Homer, Vizetelly, the Waud brothers, Forbes and many more, risked their lives to create images with a message for their hometowns, cities and the nation eager to feel the impact of the battle for the soul of the country. Did that battlefield art always tell the absolute truth of the event depicted? Does is it ever? Or was it at times drawn to inspire, to give hope and exaggerate defeat or victory? Like most art, it's remembered less for the singular drawings and sketches, and more for the body of work created in that season after the fact. Work with a message for the next generation.


Sitting on my front porch, down the road from a cemetery busy with visitors, families, mourners, friends of the fallen and artists with a desire to capture the memory for a new generation, I can't help but think about the Specials and the role they play in our creative pursuits today.


A lot of Scripture and prayer are offered on a day like this, too. Faith has played a role in memorials for all of human history, the Civil War is no exception. I was thinking about the ancient Rabbi's call to guard our words. Words, like art and tools and weapons, build up and tear down. "Don't let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." I was thinking how Rabbi Jesus' words impact our creative pursuits today. How they impact mine.


How are our words, images, sounds and strokes building up? Are we modern day urban Specials in a world of chaos and beauty?


Are we pursuing our art with a dedication beyond the average bear? With a vision and values?


Are we committed when the earth is rocking around us?


What's your message? Is it worth sacrificing time, energy, money and in rare circumstances, your life for?


Let's honor those Specials and the men and women they've attempted to capture and tell the story of on this Memorial Day. And let's continue to tell stories.

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