Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ed Reep: A Combat Artist

(Above) Ed Reep: The Morning After
(Above) Ed Reep: Orderly Room at Anzio
(Above) Ed Reep: Soldier Taking a Bath
(Above) Ed Reep: Bombing the Abbey
(Above) Ed Reep: Pack Train
(Above) Ed Reep: We Move Again
(Above) Ed Reep: Soldiers on Patrol
(Above) Ed Reep: Tanks Ready to Roll

I WANT TO TELL YOU A STORY. I WAS BORN IN 1951, SIX YEARS AFTER THE END OF WWII. As a boy in the 1950’s and early 60’s, the Second World War as I knew it was so glamorized, every kid wanted to be a soldier. I grew up watching war movies and TV shows like “Combat,” and spent hours drawing tanks and airplanes on notebook paper. Throughout grade school, I was constantly “playing Army” with my neighborhood buddies Ross and Doug. One of my earliest memories was playing in their basement when we happened to open the door of the old coal bin. There, in plain view, was their father’s dusty M-1 rifle, helmet, ammunition belt, bayonet and foot locker. Their father Joseph, who was wounded in the war, came back to become an outstanding individual of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation.” He is alive today—part of the dwindling number of WWII service men.

Running head on into this “glamorized” idea I had about WWII was another war going on, a dirty little war in a place called Vietnam. By the time I was 13 in 1964, Vietnam was ramping up. By the time I was 18 years of age in 1968, the war was at full tilt. Vietnam raged throughout my teenage years—not to mention the monumental and tragic assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK. Two of my friends in high school were killed there, and another was wounded. The draft was fully in force, and only by staying in school was I able to avoid the service. My naivete about war was ending. Eventually, when the lottery was initiated, I drew a number high enough to avoid the war by the time it finally ended.

I started art school at East Carolina University in 1970, the same year that an artist named Edward A. Reep (b. 1918) arrived as the school’s “artist-in-residence.” He was just 52 years old. Young people at the time were overwhelmingly against the Vietnam war, and long hair, bell bottom jeans, beads and tie-dye T-shirts were common. I had heard somewhere that professor Reep was an important artist, and I was a bit in awe of him. I had also heard something about him being an artist during WWII, but wasn’t sure. What I did know was fact was that Reep was a winner of the Guggenheim—so he was a really big deal for the art school. The work he did after the war was largely abstract—and nothing like his documentary work of the war.

It wasn’t until last year that I learned the extent of what Edward Reep did as an artist/soldier. What I have learned, with the help of the internet, was that my instructor was one of just 7 artists selected by the Department of Defense to paint their war experiences on paper and canvas. Just like war photographers, I learned that Reep was deep into the front lines of the war—at his own request. Carrying his watercolors, paper and brushes, young Reep saw death, fierce and engaging battles and he saw the worst of what war had to offer. Yet he continued to draw and paint.

I read one story recently about how Reep had been with his unit when they took a break late one night to watch a film... a special break for the soldiers on the front lines. The soldiers had dug a hole deep enough to hold about a dozen soldiers, and covered the hole with dark canvas so the light could not to be seen by the enemy. Reep recalled in the interview I read that he “had just left that hole when it took a direct hit by a mortar round. Most, if not all were killed.” Reep was lucky. His painting above, The Morning After, depicts what he saw at first light.

My classes with Reep didn’t begin until 1972, and to the best of my memory, Reep never spoke to my class or me about his wartime experiences. That is the way it is with most soldiers. And by this time in my life at age 21, my childhood idealism was either too tainted by Vietnam, or I was just too youthfully dumb and self-absorbed to ask Reep about his experiences.

My research found this quote by Edward Reep about his wartime experience: “I fought the war more furiously perhaps with my paintbrush than with my weapons. And I always put myself in a position where I could witness or be a part of the fighting. That was my job, I felt.”

I will tell you, Reep was not an easy teacher. He demanded a lot from his students, and he could be absolutely brutal during a critique. I saw many students cry because of his critiques, and he could smell in a second a flimsy excuse for not having an assignment completed on time. In hind sight, 35 years later, I finally believe I know why he was so tough. Reep knew that being an artist is not easy. He knew that it is a lifelong struggle to create something different and worthwhile. He’d seen war, death and horrible things and he didn’t have time for diletanttes or hobbyists. For a man who survived being dug in for months at Anzio Beach and being shelled day and night, he was at East Carolina to teach young people to be professional artists. He taught us to think, to work hard, and to see. Maybe instead of saying his critiques were “brutal” I should have said they were “brutally honest,” absolutely the right thing to do in a life too short. Thinking back to those days, I can’t say that I was ever able to be close to him, or really even liked the man—but as a teacher, he taught me a lot.

Thanks, Mr. Reep.

If you would like to see Ed Reep discuss his war time art, you can watch a short video interview he did with PBS’s Charlie Rose in the year 2000. It’s really good and worth the time.

And Ed Reep wrote a book of his experiences, A Combat Artist in WWII. The publisher was: University Press of Kentucky, c.1987. ISBN: 0813116023

PBS did a wonderful film about combat artists entitled They Drew Fire that is quite worthwhile to order from their Web site. Mr. Reep is interviewed quite a bit— and his war paintings showcased. If you want, you can call and order the DVD at 800-440-2651.


Colin said...

Great Post!

Larry the Artist said...

I'm 55 years old and as a child I recall laying on the living room floor with my toy rifle aimed at the television, waiting for German soldiers to show themselves on the program, Combat!

Unfortunately, later in my teens, I also remember feeling sick to my stomach at the nightly news death count during the Vietnam war. It was like keeping score, in sports.

John Foster said...

I know Larry. I remember as well the daily body counts in Vietnam. It was always so badly skewed:

Viet Cong Killed: 673
Americans Killed: 34

Skewed numbers like that come either from propaganda, or air strikes. Funny thing is, now an American university is opening a campus in Ho Chi Minh City (Hanoi!). Funny how time changes perceptions.

Karen said...

Hello Mr. Foster,

Ed Reep is my Grandpa. Somehow my husband stumbled upon this blog. I appreciate what you wrote about him. I have to agree with everything you wrote. He has always been very honest about everything. As a child, and an adult, he never talked about the war unless asked. I did a report on him in high school and asked a lot of questions. Later my mom told me he didn't really like talking about the war. It was a painful experience for him.

I have had the privilege to know him for almost 37 years. He just turned 91 years old and still lived with my Grandma. Nowadays he doesn't do much painting, but he still loves art.

Thank you for writing such a nice piece about him.

Sincerely, Karen Davies

Susan Reep said...

My daughter forwarded this to me. Ed Reep is my dad and I'll show this post to him. He lives in Bakersfield, CA. Doesn't paint anymore; he's 91 and has hand tremors. But he'd be proud of what you said because you "got it." He never talked about the war to us and I can understand that. I coached my granddaughter in a history day project recently about the Battle for Monte Cassino. We studied in depth, and knowing what we found out, I don't know how my dad, or anyone for that matter, came back from war and raised a family, taught, and lived a "normal" life. War is indescribably terrible. Thank you for what you wrote.

(You can see my blog at

Again, thanks. Susan Reep

John Foster said...

To Karen and Susan-

Give your dad a hug for me— and tell him I loved him for the man he was; that he taught me many things; he was a man's man— tough— and he MADE ART!!!!! His big hands and short fingers making some of the most wonderful marks I had ever seen. Tell him he taught me well and I will never forget him. Yes— I got it all right. John

Kerra Icansketchu said...

My friend, Michael Purcell, brought Ed's work to my attention. After reading over his background and some of his experiences, I could see why. My family has seen more than their fair share of combat--right down to our young son who just returned from a long tour in Afghanistan.

I paint in watercolor, too, and have many of our American heroes as the subject matter. The war effects our lives during each waking moment--and we find the balance with 'civilian life' a constant challenge to keep in perspective. I wish I could meet Ed and his daughter Susan myself, as we find it calming to be in the company of others where explanations are not necessary. Thank you for setting the bar high for excellence and sharing your experiences for the world to learn from.

-Kerra Lindsey

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