Painter William MacDonnell toured Croatia and Afghanistan embedded with the Canadian Forces. His work is included in A Brush With War, a new art exhibition at the Canadian War Museum.
What was your work day like?
Mostly taking photographs. A lot of it was just travelling, just getting to where you’re going and then spending an hour there, and then you jump into whatever armoured vehicle is available.
How was your relationship with the soldiers?
It was interesting that soldiers there were very willing to talk and chat about anything. You could ask any questions you wanted, but I think it was also prefaced by the fact that I said “We’re not media.”
So you found them fairly helpful?
Oh, yeah, terrific. I think they’re a bit lonely in a way. I’d been teaching at art school for the last 25 years, and they were the same age as most of my students. It was easy to just ask where they were from and what they were doing. If you showed an interest you could talk all day. There’s a lot of sitting around waiting in the army, so lots of time to just chat.
Is there a moment you can recall when someone said, “Stop doing that?”
On my first day out (in Afghanistan) I didn’t know what I was allowed to take pictures of. I saw this patrol of LAVs ready to go out, so I said, “Well, I’ll start taking pictures and see what happens.” (The commanding officer) turned around with a real grim look on his face and I thought, “Oh, I’m in real deep trouble.” Instead, he laughed and said good, take as many pictures as you want. And then said, but I’d like you to make sure you take pictures of things like the swampers, the guys who fill gas cans all day and of the sentries on duty because everyone forgets them. You know, everybody takes pictures of the big machines.
Did you paint any other unexpected subjects?
There was a whole row of porta-potties and the battle adjutant jokingly said, “Oh, it’s sunset, the porta-potties are just lovely, just what you artists need.” And so I dutifully played along and took pictures and sent him a painting of them. I’ve got three or four pictures of these and they’re the most popular by far. I wish they were in the show.