By Dale Short
It was the spring of 2003 when soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division rolled into Iraq’s holy city of Najaf. Video of the historic event shows the huge golden towers of the Imam Ali mosque — burial place of the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law — looming incongruously over the chaos of the infantry battle below.
If you ever see footage of the scene in a documentary, you can easily pick out Birmingham’s Kevin Webster: he’s the only soldier using a sketch pad instead of a weapon.
Webster was carrying on a long tradition. Combat artists have been a fixture in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, and the Pentagon has one of the world’s largest art collections.
Though Webster has been back in the civilian world for several years now, his life is still focused on drawing and painting — but with radically different subject matter. His first show, opening Sept. 8 at the Monty Stabler Galleries in Homewood, features images ranging from an antique fire engine to the legendary “Penny the Dog” dog-food billboard on the viaduct above Sloss Furnaces.
“They’re definitely the opposite extreme of the ugly things that can happen in war,” Webster says, as he works on one of the paintings for the show, a soulful closeup portrait of a chocolate-colored Labrador Retriever. “I don’t think I’ve consciously chosen that, but that’s the way it’s happened.”
The artist’s odyssey from the Middle East back to his familiar hometown stomping grounds has been an arduous one in more than just miles. At one juncture he gave up art altogether, and at another he set aside decades of experience with realism and took up abstract painting instead.
As a child Webster learned to draw and paint from his grandfather, who had studied with the renowned Charles Marion Russell, known as “The Cowboy Artist.” But the young Webster was fascinated by all things military, and when it came time for college he turned down an art scholarship and joined the Army instead.
“For one thing, I didn’t think I could make money as an artist,” he recalls. “But I also knew I wasn’t ready for college. I wanted to be on my own and to travel a lot. The military was a way to do that.”
The noise and carnage of battle would seem the least likely environment for any fine art to flourish, especially painting, but Webster says there’s a reason the tradition survives: “There are things that a camera can’t capture.” Besides, he says, capturing scenes of combat were only part of his job. “We’re not trying to glamorize a victory as some great thing. Our orders are to show the good, bad and the ugly.
“Some of my paintings show soldiers playing cards. There are pictures from the Civil War that show the same thing. So there’s kind of a kinship there, a perspective on soldiers’ lives.”
Soon after he retired from the Army, he was offered a managerial job in Birmingham. It required so much of his time and attention that his paints and brushes stayed in storage for weeks, then months. And though he wasn’t yet aware of the scope of his problem, Webster says the culture shock of returning to normal life had set into motion a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He survived the emotional turbulence, but his marriage didn’t. Along the way he traded the corporate boardroom for the environment of a suburban police dispatcher.
Some time later, he noticed that an art studio close to his new office was offering classes in abstract painting. One day he was leaving his parking deck and ran into art teacher Jennifer Harwell.
Webster enrolled in her class, and what came next was culture shock of a kinder and gentler sort. “Till that point I had only done realism,” he says. “I had never painted loose strokes until I met Jennifer. To be honest, abstract painting was a lot harder for me. But studying with her got me excited about art again, got ideas running through my brain that weren’t the cut-and-dried ideas you get from looking at a photograph.
“People who don’t paint tend to think that anybody can do impressionism, but that’s far from the case. The difference is not just in composition or texture or use of color, it’s something bigger. You can look at an abstract painting and immediately tell the difference between an artist and somebody who just wants to be an artist.”
Webster recalls one class project in particular, when he finished the first abstract painting he felt proud of. On a whim, he added one final touch: a tiny, photo-realistic hummingbird in the center of the swirling colors. Harwell saw the painting and broke into a laugh. “I love it!” she told him. “Now, take out the hummingbird and it’ll be perfect.”
The effect of Webster’s “abstract period” on his painting style has been significant, he says. “I still love realism, but sometimes I float into a looser stroke. And I’m still intrigued by the idea of a realistic object in front of an abstract background. I guess I’m trying to find a happy medium.”
But his military past continues to surface in his work, sometimes in unexpected ways — such as a new series of Birmingham cityscapes featuring paintings on individual Masonite panels, six inches square, attached at the sides to form a larger canvas.
“In the Army I didn’t have an overhead projector to trace out large paintings. I had to put graph paper on a photo and draw it to scale as a series of panels. So these new paintings are sort of an echo of that. What intrigues me is the subtle variations in color, from one small panel to another.”
The image of the Sloss Viaduct “Penny” billboard is an icon of his childhood, Webster says. “When I was in elementary school my dad worked in Tarrant, and I remember us driving across the bridge and seeing the furnaces going full blast. But in retrospect, it’s not Penny’s wagging tail that’s most interesting to me, it’s the way the sunlight passes through the structure and makes little specks on the back. I guess if there’s a common theme to my city pieces, it’s about the way that light hits different objects.”
When Webster isn’t painting or police-dispatching, he’s finding ways to help other Alabama artists have their work seen — and bought — in public. He was the organizer of the first “Small Works of Great Art” exhibit last fall held in the lobby of Homewood City Hall, which raised money for causes such as the Special Olympics. Canvas size was limited to 154 square inches or less, Webster says, because small affordable paintings are less intimidating to first-time art buyers.
This spring he was in the planning stages of a “Small Works” reprise when Alabama’s historic tornadoes took center stage. “Donors are really strapped, and there’s only so much philanthropy to go around,” he says. “So we’re gearing up for next year instead. It’s a great venue.”
But Webster says that at some level he’ll always be a military artist. When the large painting he did of the historic siege of Najaf and the gold-towered mosque was exhibited a while back, a collector approached him and wanted to buy it.
“The gentleman said the painting affected him emotionally, that it put him in the scene and he could almost hear the gunfire,” Webster says. “I told him it wasn’t mine to sell, that it was the property of the U.S. Army, but he was insistent. So I offered to paint him another one, and I did.
“The idea that you can make an emotional connection with paint you’ve put on canvas is a great feeling. And to know that people will still be enjoying a painting when I’m dead and gone… there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”
Monty Stabler Galleries presents new paintings by Kevin Webster Sept. 8-30, with an opening reception scheduled for 5-8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 8. Monty Stabler is located at 1811 29th Ave. South in Homewood. Call 205-879-9888 or visit www.montystablergalleries.com for more information.