There is a very entertaining movie from 1955 starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis called “Artists and Models.” The premise is that…well, the premise is complicated in a 1950s kind of way, so let’s just suffice it to say that it’s pretty funny when it’s all said and done (Shirley MacLaine plays the model, Bessie Sparrowbush). Artists have always had a symbiotic relationship with their models (probably explaining why there are so many self-portraits: that model is cheap, available, and easily understood).
Finding models for anything, but especially for military paintings, is always a challenge. They need to be relatively accurate in terms of age and fitness (meaning they need to look relatively young and be relatively thin), and in any era, except the American Civil War, they need to be clean shaven. Speaking of which, right now there is a gold mine of Civil War-style bearded models due to the current hipster lumbersexual phase. But, alas, I don’t need any Civil War models right now (and by the time I do, the hipsters will undoubtedly be clean-shaven again).
For military historical paintings, the model search is complicated by the fact that I usually need the models to show up accurately dressed, accurately accoutered, and accurately armed. If you’ve looked at my website, you’ll see that my work spans a broad range of historical genres, and I know a little about all of it, and a lot about some of it, but you never know what you’ll need for the next painting (other than it probably won’t be anything convenient). And as I’ve mentioned before in this series, it’s not just WW2 American models I need, it’s WW2 American G.I. infantry in Germany 1945 models. So that’s pretty specific.
I’ve been a reenactor/living historian since 1986, and I know from personal experience that if you want to know the details — the excruciating leave-no-stone-unturned details — about any historical era, then by all means you should talk to a serious reenactor. Have you ever wondered what the stitch count was in a Confederate Richmond Depot shell jacket in early 1865? They have, I assure you, and they’d be happy to tell you about it.
So I’m on the search for WW2 U.S. Army reenactors, young-ish, thin-ish, and clean-shaven with all the correct garb and equipment. How hard can that be, right? We live in the U.S. after all. So I begin my search by asking friends whose opinions I trust, “Where can I find the best WW2 G.I. reenactor group?” And I get some good answers. Some consistent answers. In fact, only one group is mentioned, so I google search the group, and they are indeed an impressive and accurate-looking cadre of fellows. All criteria is met, plus they have that lived-in look that’s often difficult to achieve with living history groups. So I contact them straight away.
And so it begins: “They be happy to model.” “No, I can’t afford to pay models for time and expenses (labor of love, etc, etc), though I can provide a first-rate collector’s print.” Unfortunately, like many living history groups, the members are located all over the country and only come together for particular events a few times a year. Do these events coincide with my deadlines? No, of course they don’t. “Maybe next time.” “Regards” “Best wishes,” etc, etc.
Despite this set back, it just so happens that in a couple of weeks, just a few hours from my studio there’s going to be World War Two reenactment in a city park in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Woo hoo! It’s a long shot, I know, but really I’m just looking for a few G.I. reenactors. How hard can that be? If it’s a WW2 reenactment, there have to be G.I. reenactors, right?
I should mention that I’ve been doing WW2 reenacting off and on since 2004, and whenever I meet someone who says they do WW2 reenacting, one of the things I find entertaining to ask is, “No shit, Airborne or SS?” Nine times out of ten, it’s going to be one or the other. Very few people are interested in doing the plain old garden variety GI or German (or Brit for that matter). Full disclosure: my unit is British Airborne, so I too am guilty as charged. And for models, unfortunately, it makes a difference. The U.S. Airborne uniform and kit are completely different from the U.S. Army G.I., and not interchangeable in the least.
But I’ve actually been to Oak Ridge’s Secret City reenactment before, many times (as a reenactor), so I know what to expect: a well-run event, heavy on Germans and vehicles. So I load up the car, including all my own reenactment gear — you never know, they might need another private in the line — and head to Oak Ridge.
On arrival, I quickly canvas the troops before the first “battle” of the day, and I find all of TWO G.I. reenactors in attendance, neither of whom matches my criteria for age, fitness and kit.
But I did get to join my Brit Airborne group for the afternoon; had a jolly good time, a spot of tea and a bickie, and then hit the road back to Virginia, none the worse for wear, but no GI models either.
Oh, but I did get to see this: a German 88.
They actually fired that monster. Wow! An impressive piece of hardware.
So desperation calls, and there’s one last option: a friend who’s affiliated with the American Armor Museum on Long Island, New York. If you’ve ever checked the Google Map distance from southwest Virginia to Long Island, New York, you’ll see why this is Option Last. It’s a long damned way, and the path crosses Manhattan(!). Yikes. But beggars can’t be choosers as they say, so I get in touch with them, and lo and behold they have an event in two weeks, and they’d be glad to help with their cadre of fully-equipped WW2 living history guys.
So we’re on. Long Island, here we come.
Next time: Once More Into the Breach