James Pollock Interview – 50 States (South Dakota)

June, 2019
Reading Time
13 mins
Down Arrow
Image © The Interviewee

James Pollock – “From my experience, there was no censorship applied or implied”

This week Creative Chair is in South Dakota talking with veteran artist James Pollock for the 44th instalment of our 50 States series.

In 1967 James Pollock was one of 46 artists in the U. S. Army Vietnam Combat Artist Program. These soldiers were tasked with documenting the war using their respective creative mediums. While photographs from the Vietnam war can show us how the war looked, these soldier artists literally painted pictures of how the war felt. The results are fascinating, so we caught up with James Pollock to find out more.

You can find out much more about James Pollock and the Army Vietnam Combat Artist Program using the links at the end of this interview.

Tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you do

Thank you Creative Chair for inviting me to be part of this project. My name is James Pollock. I was born and raised on a farm/ranch on the Great Plains of South Dakota, USA. My home town (Pollock) was named after my Great Grandfather. As far back as I can remember I wanted to be an artist. When I was 3 years old I painted a watercolor that I titled “God In A Storm”.

As you can see, at age 3 (1946) I was an “Abstract Expressionist”. According to Wikipedia “Abstract Expressionism is a post World War II art movement in American painting, developed in New York in the 1940s . . .” I lived in South Dakota and had no connections in New York. Maybe I was the Dakota Prairie branch of the movement.

God in a Storm
“God in a Storm” – James Pollock (age 3)

Shopping Cart Robots
Shopping Cart Robots

The Universal Weathervane
The Universal Weathervane

The Whale Bird
The Whale Bird

Whistling Bandmaster
Whistling Bandmaster

After graduating with a major in art from South Dakota State University (SDSU) I was drafted into the U. S. Army. In 1967 through Army-wide competition, I was selected for U. S. Army Vietnam Combat Artist Team IV (CAT IV). Following my army stint, I worked several years as art director for a book and magazine publisher.

Most of my adult life I have been self-employed as a freelance artist.  I’m a compulsive sketcher and have hundreds of pads and sketchbooks filled with drawings. The last few years painting small watercolors outdoors (en plein air) has been a passion.

One of James Pollock’s pocket sketchbooks

What motivated you to leave your safe posting in Korea to join the US Army Vietnam Combat Artist Program in an active war zone?

It is not widely known, but during the Vietnam War the U. S. Army sent teams of soldier-artists into the fields and jungles of Vietnam to record experiences and observations for the annals of military history. From 1966 to 1970 nine 5-man soldier-art teams rotated in and out of Vietnam. Typically 60 days in Vietnam, then another 75 days in Hawaii doing finished art. When one team moved to Hawaii another moved into Vietnam. After Hawaii, art produced was sent to the Office of the Chief of Military History in Washington, D.C. and artists returned to their regular units and jobs. In all 46 soldier-artists participated in the U. S. Army Vietnam Combat Artist Program.

In July of 1967 I was sorting mail at APO 96321 at Camp Ames, a remote army base in Korea. The middle of August that same year with a Rapidograph ink pen and sketchbook I was in Vietnam.

Poncho tent I made and used while visiting 196th Lt. Inf. Bg. field unit in the Chu Lai area of Vietnam.

James Pollock in Vietnam (1967)
James Pollock in Vietnam (1967)

It seemed contrary to my artist’s nature to be creating art from a world bounded by suffering, chaos and destruction. History tells us that artists have covered past wars and assuredly they will cover future wars. Illustrator Harvey Dunn grew up in South Dakota.  I was familiar with work he did as a soldier artist in WW I. Because of this familiarity with Dunn’s WWI work I was aware of the significance of this Vietnam soldier-art program and wanted to contribute what I could to history. I understood the risks of being in a war zone, Vietnam was the war in front of me and I chose to go. I was young (22 years old) and not a seasoned or fully mature artist, but was determined to do the best I could.

Card Game
Card Game

Moving from a plush clerical job in Korea to visiting units in soggy, steaming hot and bug-infested fields and jungles of Vietnam was an environmental shock. I had open travel orders and would visit a unit from 1 to 4 days. If the unit was on patrol, tramping through rice paddies and jungle streams. that is what I did. If the unit was handing out soap to Vietnamese locals, that is what I did. When travelling with units soldier-artists were exposed to the same dangers and difficult conditions as the unit being visited.

Door Gunner
Door Gunner

All of the art work created became part of the U. S. Army Art Collection, maintained by the U. S. Army Center of Military History in Ft. Belvoir VA. The army kept every sketch, preliminary and finished work I did.  Most of the 46 artists were my age give or take a few years. None were famous or well-established illustrators. I still have to pinch myself to believe a group of young artists, as we were, have a complete body of work in one of the world’s great war art collections.

Looking Down the Trail
Looking Down the Trail

Some of the paintings from yourself and other artists in the program depict quite raw and troubling scenes. It’s clear that there was no significant censorship from the government. Were you surprised that you were given so much creative license during a time when there was an anti-war movement happening back home?

I was not surprised by the creative freedom we had. The army’s Vietnam Combat Artist Program had significant civilian influence. The Office, Chief of Military History was the big boss, but if one digs deeper the risky idea of rotating teams of young soldier artists was the concept of two civilian women. Marian McNaughton was Curator for the Army Art Collection. She was asked by the Chief of Military History to develop a combat art program for the Vietnam War. McNaughton’s plan included involving the world wide Army Arts and Crafts Program, then headed by Eugenia Nowlin.

McNaughton’s office relied on Nowlin and her world-wide cadre of Army Arts and Crafts directors to solicit applications from soldiers. Applications were forwarded to McNaughton’s office at the U. S. Army Center of Military History where selection and team assignments were made.

Marian McNaughton is deceased. Before she died I interviewed her by telephone. One of the questions I asked her was “Who was this panel that selected the soldier-artists?” She answered “It was me.”

Waiting Interrogation
Waiting Interrogation

This concept of censorship often rears its head when I give public talks. From my experience, there was no censorship applied or implied. In April of 2018 I was invited to be on a panel at the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D. C. The issue of censorship came up.  I asked that a painting by Roger Blum (CAT I, 1966) titled “Lost of War” be shown.  It is an emotional piece that depicts a hooch being burned down with a mother and her children standing in front of their charred home.

A very powerful piece that censors, if they existed, would not have allowed.  On the National Archives panel, I pointed out that I was not aware of any censorship at the field level if there is any CENSURE going on it is at the curatorial level.

Lost of War
Lost of War by Roger Blum (CAT I, 1966)

How has your state influenced the work that you do?

I enjoy the isolation and solitude of the wide open prairies. It is being close to nature and the land that feeds my creative instincts. South Dakota is the window through which I look. I love painting outdoors with my watercolors.

Oahe Litmoreau Antelope James Pollock Painting

Of your own work, what is your favourite project and why?

My favorite project was being invited by the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra to sketch, paint and interpret music live on stage during the performance of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” at a 2005 concert in the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls. This mixing of live symphonic music and artists painting live on stage in front of a public audience was the first of its kind in South Dakota.

Sarah Chang
This 2005 watercolor and ink wash by James Pollock entitled “Concert Strings” was painted on stage as part of a unique collaboration event between the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra and seven South Dakota Plein Air Artists.
James Pollock Painting the Symphony
James Pollock Painting the Symphony
Concert Strings
World renowned classical violinist Sarah Chang was guest artist at this event. She asked the artists to not work during her audience performance but allowed sketching and painting during rehearsal. Her music was wonderful. I was also captivated by her movements as she played her violin. She was exciting to watch and with quick sketches I tried to capture her movement.

And finally, if you died and got reincarnated as a song, what would that song be?

I would rather come back as a song bird. A Barn Swallow would be my favorite. Male and female team up for life. Together they share responsibilities related to raising and feeding a family. They mind their own business, don’t bother the environment other than eliminating a few flying bugs. When winter approaches they know enough to pack up and head South. Before leaving I would sit on a fence post and tweet to my human friends:

Women Folk Singing their version of Tom Paxton’s LAST THING ON MY MIND


Further Information

James Pollock on Wikipedia

Essay by Jim Pollock from War, Literature, and The Arts

Dakota Life – The Art of War (video)

National Archives Combat Panel (video)

Sketchbook 91.1.1 by James Pollock and Steve Boint (book)

Bird Talk

The Last Thing on My Mind"
The Last Thing on My Mind (1964)
The Womenfolk
Play on Apple Music
Play on Spotify
Play on YouTube
What began as a fun question to end an interview, has now become a wonderfully eclectic collaborative playlist by 161 people (and counting).
South Dakota with James Pollock
Our Forest