New Publication: The Artist as Soldier

For the last two weeks, my posts have reflected on the current pandemic, but today I’d like to share some good news: I’ve recently published an article in Arts, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal. You can read the article here.

While I’ve published my work before, this is my first peer-reviewed work. This means that other scholars have read the manuscript commented on it, and ultimately considered it worthy of publication. Better yet, Arts is an open-access journal, which means that anyone can read its contents without having to pay. As someone who’s experienced the frustration of paywalls, I’m glad that I can share my work with anyone who’s interested. It also means that my work will have a better chance of getting read and cited because there’s no fee that might turn off potential readers.

Howard Cook, Self-Portrait in a Foxhole, 1943, mixed media on paper. Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

So what’s this article about? The subject is a collection of World War II drawings from New Mexico artist Howard Cook (1901-1980), and more specifically a group of works collectively titled Self-Portrait in a Foxhole. For three months in 1943, Cook served as an art correspondent in the South Pacific as part of the federal War Art Unit, a government initiative intended to document the war. During those three months, Cook sketched Allied soldiers engaging in everything from watching movies to digging trenches. In the case of the Self-Portrait group, Cook shows himself taking shelter during an air raid while participating in the Invasion of Rendova. In the article, I argue that the Self-Portrait group explores the war experience through the lens of vulnerability, a theme that recurs throughout his war drawings.

This article developed out of an exhibition I curated in 2015. The Roswell Museum has a large collection of Cook’s art, including the war drawings, along with the correspondence Cook wrote during his assignment to his wife, fellow artist Barbara Latham (1896-1989). Roswell has a large veteran population and fond memories of the Walker Air Force Base, so I knew an exhibition on war art, especially one on view during the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end, would appeal to a lot of visitors. In addition to showcasing our collection, I borrowed a few painted works from the art collection at the New Mexico Military Institute. I also featured a 1943 issue of Collier’s magazine, where Cook had some of his art published. For the actual text labels, I quoted from Cook’s letters whenever possible, allowing readers to learn about the works through his perspective.

Howard Cook, Two Men in a Foxhole, 1943, mixed media on paper. Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

While I may have started out this exhibition with visitors in mind, I ended up getting really interested in the works myself. I’ve always liked Cook’s work, but the war drawings are especially interesting because they’re something of a departure from his earlier works. Cook started out his career working in a Precisionist style, and he always drew in a clear, lucid manner with an ample amount of reflected light to give his work a luminous quality. He continued using that style for a lot of his war drawings, but he also experimented with a more gestural, expressionistic style. In works like Two Men in a Foxhole, shown above, Cook uses thick strokes of white pigment to suggest the forms of the two men, their white flesh standing out vulnerably against the ink wash background. While Cook relied on strong contrasts between light and shadow to bring clarity to his compositions, there’s a raw quality to the Rendova drawings that you don’t always see in Cook, and I thought that was worth exploring further.

An example of Cook’s Precisionist work: Skyscraper, 1928, wood engraving on paper. Image courtesy of http://oldprintshop.com/product/20247

What especially intrigued me about the Self-Portrait group was the artist’s decision to depict himself in a moment of vulnerability. Cook doesn’t show himself digging the trench, or running off the boat during the initial Rendova landing. Instead, he’s showing himself taking shelter from artillery fire, something he couldn’t actively fight back against. I thought this vulnerability was worth exploring and decided to write about it.

I first floated the idea of a potential essay in 2015, when I presented a conference paper at the Southwest Art History Conference in Taos. It was well-received there, so I sent the paper to a professor I knew at Williams for suggestions and began expanding it into a manuscript. I was on a roll, but after the exhibition opened, other projects and tasks began demanding my time. I decided to shelve the piece until the right opportunity came up to revisit it.

That happened in the summer of 2019, when the Williams College listserv forwarded a call for papers for a special issue in Arts journal. The editor was especially interested in works that dealt with the Pacific Theater, so I sent in an abstract because I figured I had nothing to lose. They accepted it, so I spent the next few months reworking the piece. In July, I was notified that it was accepted, so I started work by making a schedule. Since the manuscript was due in early December, I worked backward to July to make sure I had plenty of time to finish. I ultimately decided to dedicate an hour each weekday morning to working on the piece, so that I would make steady progress while having plenty of time to focus on my coursework.

I started by taking the original essay and reading it all the way through. After rereading the original essay, I made notes on how to improve it. I then refreshed the research (having access to a university library and all its academic resources made that a lot easier), which including rereading Cook’s letter as well as finding new secondary literature. I then wrote three different outlines: one for the original essay, one for the envisioned new essay, and one that combined the two. I then spent the next few months reworking and expanding the 2015 essay. The manuscript then went through two rounds of peer reviews, and after each round I incorporated their suggestions. The final essay was substantially different from the 2015 piece, but having a draft that I could then rework made the whole process much easier.

An example of Cook’s studies of indigenous peoples. Despite his interest in the indigenous people of the South Pacific, as well as their involvement in the Allied effort, Cook ultimately focused on white soldiers because he believed they were the dominant aspect of his assignment, a decision that merits further exploration. Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

It was interesting to revisit this piece, because it showed me how much my interests have changed over the last few years. I’m proud of this article and I’m happy to introduce RMAC’s art collection to a scholarly audience, but my focus has shifted since I first started working on it. if I were to write this piece now, I’d focus on Cook’s decision focus on white soldiers rather than indigenous populations, aside from a few preliminary sketches. As I’ve learned, what’s not shown is as important as what is.

All that said, I’m pleased to have this essay out there now (and very grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their insightful commentary), and I hope it will open up more scholarly inquiries into both Cook’s work and the Roswell Museum collection more broadly. It’s got some great works that scholars would benefit from studying.

My Writing Process

Like a lot of graduate students, I write regularly. Whether it’s a discussion post, a research paper, or even a blog entry like this one, I’m usually writing something in one form or another every day. Today then, I’d like to tell you about my writing processes. I say processes because I go about my assignments differently.

For shorter or more informal pieces like this one, I usually get straight to the draft. For blog posts, I’ll often write a short sentence summarizing each of the paragraphs I want to include, and then go back and flesh them out. If it’s an image-heavy post, I’ll insert my pictures first, and organize my paragraphs around them. There’s definitely preplanning in terms of figuring out the general layout, but aside from having a rough narrative in mind, I typically jump into the draft itself.

Research papers, by contrast, are an entirely different animal. I usually start with some freeform writing, where I list ideas, phrases, thought bubbles or anything that I think could be pertinent to the essay. I then take these ideas and organize them into a preliminary outline. This isn’t the final one I’ll use, but it gets my argument into order.

Once I have the basic structure down, I then create what I call my full outline. This is where I plot out every section, every paragraph, and every citation. I include my sources, page numbers, and direct quotations, even if I don’t intend to use them, so that I have everything in one place. With this outline, it’s my goal to have everything in one document so that I’m not scrambling for quotes or sources down the line. I still usually do end up looking up at least a few sources later on, but putting them in an outline ahead of time significantly cuts down on how much time I spend doing that.

Once I have this outline, I then write the draft. Depending on the essay length, I’ll try to get the full draft in one session, though I have experimented with dividing them up as well. If I’m having a focused morning session, I can usually write a 20-25 paper draft in about four hours.

All of this, however, is just the setup for what I consider the heart of my writing process: rewriting. I once had a professor tell me that the key to good writing was good editing, and I take that advice very seriously. I write my drafts knowing that I’ll never get it right the first time, and that I will need to rework and massage it multiple times. Over the course of my editing process, I probably end up rewriting a work several times, and the first draft ends up bearing little resemblance to the finished piece. Yet for me, this part is the most fun. You get to see how many ways you can say something, and then decide which one works best for you.

Even my blog posts and discussion posts get edited in one form or another. If you’re reading any of my posts, they’ve probably gone through at least one round of revising. Not to the extent of formal essays, but they’re still edited.

And what about those pesky typos? After all, with so much editing, you’re bound to hit a few wrong keys, and I most certainly do. I started using Grammarly last year, which helps me catch a lot of those mistakes. I don’t rely exclusively on software though, so for all my academic work, I make sure to read the final draft out loud at least once, if not more. Another professor of mine suggested this to all her undergraduate students, and I’ve never found a better way to test the flow of my writing and catch stray grammatical errors.

I personally consider my writing workmanlike. I treat writing like a job that you work consistently (albeit a more fun and creative one, if I’m in the right mood), and for academic writing in particular, I try to work in the morning when I’m most focused. Given my propensity for rewriting, it’s easy to get sucked into editing forever, but that’s why deadlines are so important for me. If I have a cutoff date, I can keep myself from getting trapped in an endless editing cycle.

So that’s my writing process. The thing about graduate school, however, is that no two students work the same, so everyone approaches writing differently. My process isn’t necessarily right for everyone, and indeed some would probably find it stifling. It works for me though, and that’s what matters.

14-Day Writing Challenge

As a second-time graduate student returning to academia after several years in the workforce, I’m always interested in increasing my work efficiency. Spending nearly every waking moment on homework caused me to burn out on school eight years ago, after all, so I’d like to avoid that again. I’ve also got friendships, relationships, and hobbies to maintain, so increasing my efficiency so that I can spend more time doing these other things is important for me. To paraphrase one of my former coworkers at Roswell, I’m not interested in working harder anymore, but smarter.

Which is why I recently participated in a 14-day writing bootcamp online. The premise is that you set a timer for 30 minutes and do nothing but write during that time. No email, no social media, no cat videos, no movie reviews, no random Wikipedia articles, nothing but writing or looking at the notes or sources you need for writing. Preferably you should be consistent with the time of day you choose to write, whether it’s first thing in the morning or late at night, but the point is that you make 30 minutes of uninterrupted writing a habit.

Timer-based productivity sessions are nothing new. Arguably the most famous is the Pomodoro Techique (which, if you’re wondering, is the Italian word for tomato).

This bootcamp is a variation on the Pomodoro Technique (25 minutes + 5 minute break + 15-30 minutes break after every fourth break), and more broadly reflects a multitude of studies demonstrating that humans tend to work better in short bursts rather than long stretches. I read about the Pomodoro Technique a few years ago when I was working in Roswell, but wasn’t especially keen on the idea of timers then. I thought it overemphasized quantifying time and would interrupt my writing flow.

If I’ve learned anything about being in grad school again though, it’s that I’m prone to distraction. Part of it is simply the proliferation and availability of material online, but my previous job also influenced my working habits. Since there were always a thousand things going on at the museum that needed to get done, I rarely had an uninterrupted afternoon at my desk to write. More often than not, I would have to wedge in short blocks of writing time in between meetings, exhibition installations, or impromptu tours. Yet in spite of all that, I still managed to get my writing done within a 40-hour work week, and rarely took anything home.

Being back in grad school has forced me to be honest about my working habits. Without the museum to structure my day, I’m prone to create my own interruptions. I’m productive, but I don’t have the self-discipline to work for several hours without distracting myself. I really do want to spend my free time with Brandon, my friends, and my hobbies rather than fritter it away on the Internet, but on my own, that’s what happens. I signed up for the workshop, then, because I realized that my working sessions could use more structure.

I know I need to work, but…cat videos! All right, here’s the link.

The workshop was set up as an online forum, with several other people participating. I’m an early riser and tend to be most focused in the mornings, so I set 6:00 am as my start time. With the exception of one day when I let myself write for an hour, I stuck to the 30-minute limit, as the point was to see what I could accomplish in a short amount of time. Every day after writing, I would go to the login page, write down what I accomplished, the internal and external resistance I experienced, and what had gone especially well. Finally, I would go to the group page, check in on the progress of the other participants, and leave positive feedback on one of them. The only time I didn’t check in was on the weekends, which we were encouraged to take off (well, as much as you can let yourself).

So how did it go? Actually, I’m really pleased with how it turned out. Because I only had to work for 30 minutes, I was able to stay on track and didn’t feel the need to distract myself. Knowing I only had to work for a half-hour instead of three or four hours also meant I was more willing to tackle challenging parts of my writing, those spots where you know what you need to say but just can’t find the right way to do it. While 30 minutes may not seem like much time to spend writing, over the course of two weeks it added up. I managed to write and revise a conference paper I’m giving next month, write an assessment of an article I’d been asked to peer review, and write two precis for my Modern US class, all while having the benefit of starting my day on a productive note.

On reflection, this 30-minute timer method reminded me of the way I used to write in college. As an undergraduate, I listened to classical music when I wrote. When I’d go write or revise a text (I’m not so much a writer as I am a re-writer), I’d put on a CD, and work until the disc had finished. Each CD I had was more or less an hour, so I knew that I’d get an hour’s worth of work in by the time I had gone through the disc’s playlist.

This was one of my favorite CDs to listen to in college. I still have them, though nowadays they live in my car.

This habit started to change the first time I went to graduate school, when I got tired of the CDs I had and started listening to streaming services instead. Since I no longer knew the duration of my music, it became harder to keep track of how long I’d been working. I then stopped listening to music altogether when I started working in museums, initially because I worked in open office environments and I don’t like wearing headphones, but later because my day kept getting too interrupted to make listening worthwhile. Gradually, the timer system I had unintentionally set up for myself eroded, and my working time became increasingly cluttered with self-imposed distractions.

If nothing else, this writing workshop has reminded me of the importance of structuring my time. If I want to spend more time with Brandon or my artwork, then I need to make sure I use my work time efficiently and not let my distractions stretch it out into the evening. Instead of expecting myself to work uninterrupted, I’ve accepted that I work better in shorter blocks, with little breaks in between. We all know that time is arbitrary, but measuring it can really help with staying focused. Whether it’s setting a timer, playing a CD, or some other quantifying method, I know now that I need to track my time and set goals for myself, not only for writing, but all facets of my academic work. Setting time limits and meeting them consistently not only helps me stay on track, but also enables me to more easily chart my progress.

Timer-based writing isn’t for everyone, but after seeing what I’ve been able to do with it, I think it’ll work just fine for me.