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DND Art Program gives artists chance to portray warfare artistically

By Laura Keller

For as long as there has been war, there has been art depicting it.

Many Canadians may be familiar with the work of Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe” painted in 1770. The painting depicts the General’s death at the 1759 Battle of Quebec during the Seven Years’ War.

His depiction of the events on that day are widely regarded as idealized since he was nowhere near the Battle of Quebec. Over the last century there have been a variety of programs to allow artists to capture the events of war with artists being present during both World Wars as well as Korea.

To expose artists to the military, the Department of National Defence created and funded the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP) in 2001. The program matches selected artists with an experience, so they can explore a variety of artistic themes. The program allows these artists to go to a variety of locations, see events at close range, and meet the people involved. Artists do go to war zones like Afghanistan but they also go to other locations, like Alert, Egypt and Europe.

Canadian photographer and artist Silvia Pecota has had the opportunity to participate in the program. She wanted to create art that honoured the work Canadian troops were doing as well as to gain the respect of Canadian citizens.

As a result of the experience Pecota had with the CFAP she went on to shoot for the National Post in Afghanistan, having already travelled three more times creating artwork for various rotations.

Through the program, Pecota travelled to Wainwright, Edmonton and Base Gagetown in New Brunswick, where she gained “an appreciation for the sacrifices” soldiers make. This month, CFAP held their biennial art exhibit in Ottawa where the public had an opportunity to view some of the most recent creations from program participants. Dr. John MacFarlane,Program Manager CFAP, says it is his responsibility to review the applicants and form a committee to choose the successful candidates.

“We have representation from the Canada Council, The National War Museum and the National Gallery of Canada,” says MacFarlane. “We narrow the list down to about five artists or so. Then it’s my job to find a corresponding experience for each artist, to help them realize their artistic vision.”

Interestingly, the artists aren’t all painters; the medium that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of war art. CFAP has also funded projects by photographers, authors, poets and sculptors. There have been 40 artists supported since 2001 and only about half were painters.

Also, the artists are never told how they must portray what they experience, nor are they ever asked what their opinions are. According to her website, Sharon MacKay, a young-adult-fiction writer, appreciated that freedom when she wrote her book Thunder over Kandahar.

Another interesting fact about the program is that all of the artists keep their work. “This is not a commission of the artist’s work” adds MacFarlane. “DND has commissioned work at times, but artists in this case are responsible for the marketing and promotion of their art. ”CFAP links the selected artists to the National War Museum in Ottawa, as well as regimental museums such as the Military Museums in Calgary. MacFarlane also arranges for an exhibit in Ottawa about two years after the artist has completed their experience.

“This allows for lots of time for the art to be created,” explains MacFarlane.

The deadline for applications to CFAP this year is November 30th, 2011. If you are interested,  click here for the application form.

 ** Top photo: one of Silvia Pecota's artristic creations.  Bottom photo: Pecota with the the troops. 

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