War, and all the moments of horror and humanity that often come along with it, has long been the subject of great art. From Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, to Picasso’s “Guernica” and Goya’s Disasters of War, art born from conflict can be weighty, full of gravitas and absolutely magnetic. Perhaps this is why Westhampton resident and Air Force Pararescue Jumper Jules Roy put his own experiences to paper and canvas.
“It’s really, really heavy,” Roy said, explaining what he’s witnessed and had to process over more than a decade of deployments as an elite special operations combat medic in Afghanistan. Roy only recently began chronicling his war through art, but he’s already put enough work together for an exhibition, opening this Friday, October 24, at the 4 North Main Gallery in Southampton.
Having spent most of his adult life in the military, Roy, 38, had little time for art, but he often dreamed of drawing and painting his experience saving wounded comrades, civilians and even enemies in Afghanistan. Finally, while home in Westhampton, he heard a radio interview with local painter Patton Miller, who said he taught art privately, so Roy gave him a call. “He said he could teach anyone to draw,” Roy said, pointing out that he had no training or experience making art—only an appreciation of it and a “nagging” desire to learn.
Miller took him on as a student and the two immediately went to work gathering materials and preparing for Roy to begin drawing during his next deployment. “He gave me a list of goals,” Roy said, explaining that Miller told him to make at least one drawing per day and to try creating enough work to have a show when he returned to the Hamptons. “I really had no expectations and goals other than honing my skills as a draftsman,” Roy said, noting that he ended up with 45 drawings and 10 paintings to exhibit at 4 North Main Gallery. “It’s exciting.”
Back in Afghanistan, Roy’s art took on a life of its own. He had envisioned drawing operational, day-to-day scenes of life as a Pararescue Jumper, but instead found himself looking toward indigenous Afghans for inspiration. Rather than making pictures of helicopters and wounded soldiers, Roy began sketching more emotional, expressive pictures—like those of his artistic mentor—many from the perspective of Afghan farmers, women and children trying to make sense of the carnage and destruction around them. “I drew what I was feeling and thinking,” he said. “Women became a big part of it.”
In one oil on canvas (which Roy painted at home while referencing his drawings), an Afghani woman in traditional headscarf looks out her window at a plume of smoke rising from the mountains. The artist empathizes, describing her as wondering whether her husband, son or father is involved in the far-off explosion.
In another piece, a shepherd, his young son and their sheep stand in a field, looking toward distant plumes of smoke, dissipating into a blood-red evening sky. The boy holds a stuffed bear at his side, adding more symbolism for interpretation. Roy said the painting conveys the emotion of scenes he would fly above as night fell in Afghanistan. “I know where I’m going, but the father and son seeing that smoke over the horizon—I don’t know what I’d tell my son in a situation like that,” he said, explaining that the origin of the smoke can be left to interpretation. “It’s about that conversation between father and son,” Roy said.
“These paintings are pretty dark,” he continued. “All the humanity, emotion…isn’t usually documented,” Roy added, noting that it’s important to get everything out and on paper before the emotions and images are faded or lost. While one might think the intensity of combat is frightening, Roy said his job isn’t nearly as scary as his artistic endeavors. “Standing in front of a blank canvas—that gets me juiced.”
Jules Roy’s paintings and drawings from the war in Afghanistan will be on display at 4 North Main Gallery (4 North Main Street) in Southampton starting this Friday, October 25. An opening reception will be held from 5–9 p.m. on Saturday, October 26.