Through the eyes of an artist

Despite our world becoming increasingly more digital, art continues to tell the story of the service’s missions and heroes. For the past 30 years, the Coast Guard Art Program has employed art to capture our service’s history and culture. One of these artists is Chris Demarest. Read on for Demarest’s perspectives on capturing the service through art and how he earned the nickname “Crayola Guy.”

"Late Afternoon Boarding with Oz Crew" by Chris Demarest. In joint operations with the Australian Navy, the Coast Guard boards a traditional Iraqi fishing dhow. U.S. Coast Guard painting.

"Late Afternoon Boarding with Oz Crew" by Chris Demarest. In joint operations with the Australian Navy, the Coast Guard boards a traditional Iraqi fishing dhow. U.S. Coast Guard painting.

Written by Chris Demarest, Coast Guard artist.

In February 2006 I received an email: “Dear Mr. Demarest. Would you like to go to Bahrain to cover U.S. Coast Guard operations?”

That was the gist of the email. I was in my fourth year as a Coast Guard artist having painted images of everything from food service specialists aboard Coast Guard Barque Eagle to rescue drops with Air Station Elizabeth City.

After rereading that email, I was quick to respond: “YES!”

Coast Guard artist and Auxiliarist Chris Demarest paints from a photo he took during his 2004 deployment to the North Arabian Gulf. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Etta Smith.

Coast Guard artist and Auxiliarist Chris Demarest paints from a photo he took during his 2004 deployment to the North Arabian Gulf. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Etta Smith.

My initial start with the Coast Guard was while researching rescue operations for a children’s picture book, MAYDAY! MAYDAY!: A Coast Guard Rescue, and I spent, on and off, a year working with Air Station Cape Cod – the closest station to my then-home of New Hampshire.

What I love about researching images is spending time with the crews, getting to know them. Later when it comes time to paint the image, it’s a way of reconnecting with those I’d observed and knowing that much more about what it is I’m trying to capture in paint.

On assignment, I always have my camera at the ready because I never know what will happen and usually there’s too much going on to capture in a sketchbook. Sometimes I will do quick studies, particularly while aboard a vessel, as opposed to aircraft, and give them as thank-yous to the crew – a peace offering as it were for allowing me into their lives. One crew in the Persian Gulf nicknamed me “CG.” It didn’t stand for “Coast Guard,” it meant “Crayola Guy.”

One of the reasons I was sent to Bahrain was because of my general focus on the people, not the distant drama of aircraft and vessels at work. There are many great artists who already do that. What I want is to be with the crews to capture them at work.

Bahrain was fantastic – in spite of the awful conditions of high heat and humidity – because I got to go with the boarding parties, watching them inspecting vessels from small fishing dhows to enormous tankers. I had the luxury of spending four days each aboard the 110-foot patrol boats to experience the similarity and differences with each. One was a mixed crew with six women, including a gunner’s mate.

I appreciated the tough conditions the crews dealt with. One morning leaving the Kuwait Naval Station, the executive officer informed me that at 0730, the temperature was already 128 degrees. Ahead of us a white haze illuminated the southern view. Knowing the boarding crews faced a full day in black tactical vests with fifty pounds of gear, it was easy to opt out of going on the boarding, to stay below deck in air-conditioned comfort watching movies on the flat screen television. But that wasn’t why I was there. The 19th century artist Frederick Remington rode with the cowboys and cavalry, for months on end. I could certainly muster the stamina for two weeks in the Middle East.

Chris Demarest paints a watercolor painting depicting three Coastguardsmen conducting target practice. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Etta Smith.

Chris Demarest paints a watercolor painting depicting three Coastguardsmen conducting target practice. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Etta Smith.

Not all missions are about high drama. Recently I was covering border patrol operations out of Sector San Diego aboard Coast Guard Cutter Haddock and after almost eighteen hours of nothing of note, I caught a quiet moment with the morning flag raising. It was a routine operation but the early light and the gentleness of the crewmember handling the U.S. flag hit me as a poetic image to capture.

Along with becoming a Coast Guard artist, I joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary six years ago. When I cover Coast Guard work in uniform, I’m always thanked by the officers and crew for doing my part. It certainly feels small in comparison to what the service does on a daily routine, but It’s also what any “CG” would do. Semper crayola.

Chris Demarest is currently working at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington Cemetery as artist-in-residence. He is creating a tribute to World War II veterans. His goal is to do 60 portraits covering all service branches as well as civilian participation. The exhibit will run through summer 2012.

If you are interested in becoming a Coast Guard artist, check out the Art Program’s website.

One of Chris Demarest's pieces currently showing at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington Cemetery. Courtesy of Chris Demarest.

One of Chris Demarest's pieces currently showing at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington Cemetery. Courtesy of Chris Demarest.

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