As long as humans have engaged in conflict, participants have used art and imagery to help communicate their experiences. While words can so often fall short or fail to elicit an emotional reaction, art can transport you instantly and directly to a place in time, generating empathy and understanding when they are otherwise absent. Art can also help define a culture in a way that unifies its members while communicating its character and tenets to those outside the group. Veteran artist Ben Cantwell’s work accomplishes all of this across a variety of mediums, though you’ll find ink and watercolors in abundance on his site. There are introspective portraits, military occupational specific imagery, and dozens of pieces in the traditional tattoo style that I suspect will adorn the extremities of Marines for years to come.
Ben took the time to answer some of Talk On’s questions below, and you can also hear him speak in a separate interview on Dead Reckoning Collective’s podcast here. Take a few minutes to learn about a veteran creating work you may not have seen otherwise, and give his site a visit.
TO: Where and when did you serve?
Ben: I served with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines from 2012-2015 as an 0311 Rifleman. During my time as a “Magnificent Bastard” I served in all capacities a rifleman is required to do (editor’s note: notable alumni from this unit include James Mattis and Robert Mueller, who were 2/4 rifle platoon commanders at points during their Marine careers). I carried radios, light machine guns, and eventually worked my way to being a squad leader on my second deployment. I deployed twice with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit to the pacific theater.
TO: Why the Marine Corps? Why serve at all?
Ben: After spinning my wheels in community college for 3 semesters, I wasn’t making the progress I wanted to. Several of my mentors were Vets, specifically Marines. I admired the values these people had and looked to become more like them. The Marines offered me a way of doing that while making moves to better myself and to serve alongside the best warriors.
TO: How did art come into your life and become a career?
Ben: Ive been an artist forever. I took a few classes in high school and even drew a little during my time in the military. After the Marine Corps I really began to immerse myself in art and eventually realized that I could provide the veteran community as well as other first responders with fine art. I’ve been growing my business since mid 2016
TO: What is your favorite piece you’ve done?
Ben: I think my favorite piece is the the “Sangin Shuffle” water color I painted last year. The motion, style and free flow of the water colors creates a painting that is full of “perfect imperfections” that appeal to me. The notion of running towards the sound of gunfire/danger is a mentality that resonates with many veterans and first responders including myself.
TO: Do you have a civilian audience or is it mostly veterans right now?
Ben: The majority of my audience is related to the military in some capacity. Active duty, veterans and their family have been the bedrock that has been there to support me since I started my art. I’m gradually reaching out to more First responders including members of Law Enforcement, Emergency Medicine, and Fire Fighters.
TO: What role do you think art will have in bridging the military-civilian divide that’s arisen during these long wars? Do you want to play a part in that?
Ben: Whatever role I can play in causing a conversation around [the military-civilian divide] would be fantastic. In my mind, the role of an artist is, in part, to create a piece for people to talk about.
TO: How do you envision your work can accomplish that?
Ben: Art is a centerpiece that we can use to share experiences and meaningfully relate to one another. I truly believe that that can be used as a tool to bridge the gab and help civilians who may not have first hand experience in the military or as a first responder understand the drive, humor and lifestyle of these brave men and women.
TO: What do you want civilians to know about you and your work?
Ben: Sometimes the imagery that Veterans and first responders focus on can be unsettling to civilians. The shared difficulties breed a different appreciation and sense of humor. I’d like people who may not get it at first to be patient, ask a few questions and ultimately support their veteran or first responder and our communities’ efforts. Were all just trying to get by and art really helps.
Click the photo below to visit Ben’s site and see more of his work!