From an Article in PT Leader by Kathie Meyer December 2007.
"Go to war, do art" is the motto for the Marine Corps Combat Art Program. And that is exactly what Port Ludlow artist Keith McConnell did - twice - in Vietnam and Desert Storm.
"When I joined the Marine Corps I didn't know they had a combat art program," said McConnell. "After officer candidate school, we went to basic school and I saw some of the paintings that were there, asked about it and found out about the program."
After that, he did what all artists do - he schlepped his portfolio to Marine Corps headquarters, where it was reviewed and accepted.
Later, off the battlefield, McConnell was also called upon to create posters for the Toy for Tots Program sponsored by the Marine Corps Reserve, now celebrating its 60th anniversary. Over the years he has done a total of nine posters, some so popular they've been used more than once.
"It figures out that I've done about a quarter of them altogether," said McConnell.
In addition to carrying a gun through the rice patties of Vietnam, McConnell also carried a 35mm camera and a sketch pad. In 1968-69, he would attach himself to an infantry platoon or artillery battery and spend time with them taking photographs and doing sketches. Just like any other Marine, there were times he was shot at by snipers and had to take cover. Later, he went to a studio in Da Nang to develop his film and complete the sketches or paint paintings.
The official Marine Corps Combat Art Program began in 1942 under Brigadier Gen. Robert Denig as a way to keep Americans informed about what was happening oversees. In McConnell's view, the combat artist's work is more genuine than real photographs.
"Photographs don't always give you a reality. There might be stuff that takes away from the actual reality of what you see. So an artist can craft things and emphasize things, where a photograph can't," he explained.
After his Vietnam tour, McConnell and his wife, Joanne, ended up in Southern California, where he worked as a freelance illustrator and a Marine Corps Reserve officer in a public affairs unit in Los Angeles. "That's how I first came to do the first Toys for Toys poster in 1977," he recalled.
In 1990, when the Gulf War began, "I could have worked as a public affairs officer out of the Pentagon," said McConnell. "I was pretty senior by then; I was a lieutenant colonel. Or I could go over as a combat artist. There were a lot of guys who could do the public affairs stuff, but there weren't many who could do combat art."
So he made the decision to return to the battlefield. Fortunately, the war was a quick one and he was soon back home again.
McConnell was never wounded in either conflict. Both he and his art have survived well, with the combat art safely under cover at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at the Quantico Marine Corps Base, where more than 60,000 artifacts trace the history of the Marines from 1775 to the present.
Freelancer of icons
In between Vietnam and Desert Storm, McConnell drew some major cultural icons in his freelance work. Remember the cover to the Beach Boys' 1974 album, Endless Summer? Yes, it's a McConnell creation. Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) credits the "sunny, colorful graphic cover" for helping put the Beach Boys back at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, where it remained for three years and sold more than three million copies.
The subsequent Spirit of America album cover art was another of McConnell's contributions to the Beach Boys' comeback.
McConnell has also drawn the Beatles. While he never actually met the Beatles - nor the Beach Boys - he drew promotional art for Capitol Records for a 10th-anniversary LP of Beatles' hits. That work depicts the Fab Four as they changed in appearance over the 10 years from 1963 to 1973.
Another aspect of McConnell's storied art career also includes a stint as a courtroom artist, sitting in on the trials of Symbionese Liberation Army members in the late 1970s. His observance of Patty Hearst was cut short when his wife gave birth to their son, Brett. He and Joanne also have two daughters, Heather and Amber.
Although proudest of his combat art, none of his art career is a big deal to McConnell when compared to the happiness his 2-year-old granddaughter brings him. Now 62 years old, this retired artist and officer of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve gets most excited about trips to Texas to visit her and about participating in the Port Ludlow Fly Fishers.
To McConnell, his involvement in historical events is viewed through a personal lens rather than on a grand scale.
"I was just in the right spot at the right time," he said.