Trying To Contain This Thing That Canít Be Contained
An Interview With Painter John Laemmar
The story of the Vietnam War is a long story of sacrifice. No
matter who you were with, when you were there, or even what side
you were on, you knew one thing: Your life could end at any
second. The evidence of this dark fact was all around us and
undeniable. We had to learn to adapt, function, and maintain in
This was our job, our tribe, our faith, and our culture. All we
had was each other and beyond that we were as expendable as the
ammunition we were shooting, and we knew it. How could this not
change us? This is the first of a series of interviews with
artists and is the story of that change.
- Ned Broderick
Buried In Life
Ned Broderick: John, tell us about your Vietnam War tours.
John Laemmar: I was with the Mobile Riverine, River Assault
Squadron 13. I arrived May 15, 1968, and picked up our boats. Two
weeks later we commissioned five new boats, and we were on
operation by the first week of June.
I did three tours. The first two were one-year tours, and the
last one was an eight-month tour. I came home at the end of
NB: What was your job when you were with the River Patrol?
JL: On my first tour, I was a machine gunner on an armored
troop carrier and relief coxswain and whatever else was needed.
Second tour I was a boat captain on a Mike 8. And the third tour,
I was also like a captain.
There were six advance tactical support bases along those
rivers that we kept supplied with food, fuel, ammunition,
explosives, and also barge hauling. Weíd haul fuel barges up and
down the river and salvage operations for boats and pontoons that
would be sunk. Weíd help salvage them and then bring them back
either for repair or cut them up for scrap.
Weíd carry 70,000-gallon barges of diesel all the way up almost
to the Cambodian border, the last bases on the river.
NB: When did you first become interested in art?
JL: As a kid. My folks always had a strong interest in art.
We always had a lot of art books around. Iíd look at them and try
drawing. But I was never able to do much so I thought that there
was nothing there. I thought you were born with it. But after
coming down to the museum and meeting you and taking the challenge
that if you can sign your name, you can paint, it happened very,
very quickly. I canít believe today what I can paint. Itís just
NB: In the art world, who are your greatest influences?
What artists do you really admire?
JL: Thereís a lot of them. I like Rembrandt. I like, at the
other extreme, Egon Schiel. I love some of his stuff. I especially
like Edward Hopper. Itís that isolation--very thought-provoking
pictures. There are so many that I like but for different reasons,
each one I get something out of. I love Turner and his skies--the
way he paints atmospheric effects just goes right to my heart.
Thereís something magic about his stuff.
NB: Do you find yourself picking paintings apart and taking
little pieces out and examining a technique and applying it to
your own work?
JL: To some degree. If Iím really working on a piece, then
Iíll hunt to learn how to do something. But as a general thing, I
donít think I look at a painting to see what I can learn from it
unless Iíve got a project in mind. Then something will grab me,
and Iíll use it. But I donít think itís a constant dig for new
techniques just for the sake of learning techniques.
NB: Has painting solidified your feelings on your own
experience in the war?
JL: I think in some ways, because I can put something down,
a thought or an impression that I can look at. I took a painting
to this group I meet with, and one of the guys there who happened
to be a recovering alcoholic looked at it and said, "Thatís me."
He fell in love with it. He would have bought it if I told him it
was for sale.
Itís probably the most amazing thing Iíve seen anyone do,
because he was drawn into the thing. I think itís very fulfilling
to be able to come up with an idea, construct some rough thoughts,
then translate it into a visual object.
NB: Over the years, have your feelings or views on the
Vietnam experience changed?
JL: I think so. My delving into literature, poetry, and the
arts has forced me to think about that experience in different
terms. I was more cynical at one time. I think the distance of
time helps put things in perspective. But I have something that I
couldnít have gotten any other way. I can say today that it was
the most valuable experience of my entire life and I wouldnít
trade it for anything. I donít think I always thought like that.
At one time I thought it was going to kill me.
NB: If you had to sum up Vietnam in one experience that was
indicative of the whole war, would you be able to do that?
JL: Itís reflected in the first painting I did of a patrol
boat. We were by this base close to the Gulf of Thailand, and two
of our boats were headed out on patrol. They got just outside the
base around the bend of the river, and they were ambushed big
We got underway immediately. Another boat next to ours also got
underway. By the time we got there, the shooting had stopped. It
was typical of the hit and the run, never seeing the enemy, some
Americans dead, some severely wounded, blood everywhere. We were
ready to pull the trigger but there was nothing to shoot at--they
just disappeared back into the bush.
When Saigon fell in 1975, one of the first thoughts I had was
about that night, thinking, '"What was this all about?" All that
sacrifice, all that loss, all that pain, and now itís just all
gone. It was at night, which was always a fearful time in Vietnam,
and it was under a lot of illumination from the flares, so you had
this eerie yellow-green light coming down around you. There was a
village burning in the background behind us. It was, in my mind,
very typical of Vietnam. We were all by ourselves, other than this
other boat that was maybe two hundred yards behind us. If Charlie
decided to open up on us heavy, we would have had our asses
NB: The painting is a very powerful piece of work, and it
has an overall feeling of isolation and eerieness. You can see the
bullet holes in the boat. Is it your experience that art, the act
of painting, is healing?
JL: No, I donít think it is for me. I think the ability and
the skill I gradually acquired in painting is just a fulfillment
of something Iíve wanted to do all of my life, even as a little
kid, even if I hadnít gone to Vietnam. If I had learned that I
could paint, Iíd be painting something. Vietnam just gave me a big
reason "why" and "what." But I donít think itís changed or
healed anything. Itís not like the blinding light and Iím healed.
I think thereís a universality of experience, whether itís
Vietnam or a war that happened thousands of years ago. Nasty
things happen, and people experience things that are inconceivable
to those who havenít been in that environment. And it becomes,
"What am I going to do with it? Blow my brains out or I can do
something with it?" So thatís where it goes. We are not alone in
this by any stretch.
NB: Itís gratifying to know weíre not alone. You need that
in any trauma. Itís very important that other people have gone
through it and are still functioning well.
JL: And doing something with it. Itís not a waste if youíre
doing something with it. Whether itís painting or counseling or
writing music, you havenít wasted your experience.
NB: What do you think is a big part of the draw to the
subject of Vietnam? Why are people so interested?
JL: Itís an unresolved chapter in our history, and it
polarized the nation to an extent that it hadnít been polarized
since the Civil War. Because of that, it just wonít die. Itís not
finished, and I donít think it ever will be finished.
NB: How did you feel when you were about to get out of the
service and then when you finally came home?
JL: The biggest transition was after the first tour, where
we had been hit just a few days before coming home. We were trying
to give the new boat crews some experience under fire, so they
sent us to an area were we knew weíd get hit. And we did.
Three days later we were back in California, and it was just
like landing on the moon. I didnít feel like I was home. I didnít
feel like I was part of this country. I felt like these people
just didnít have a clue. I wanted to shake them and scream at
Then, after I got out, nobody wanted to hear about it, nobody
wanted to talk about it. Everybody just wanted you to blend back
in and be part of the society. But I couldnít do that. My head was
When I was over there, I couldnít think about anything but
coming home. When I came home, all I could think about was going
on back there, about some of the guys I knew and what they were
doing, and how the operations were going, whoís still alive and
My head, even today, still spends time in Vietnam. I went back
eight years ago to do a project, and when I landed in Saigon, I
never felt more at home anyplace else in the world.
NB: How important are the other arts in your painting? How
much are you influenced by the emotions that come out of
literature and poetry?
JL: A lot. Now, most of what Iím thinking about doing or
have started sketches on, has some tie to literature or poetry.
Heart of Darkness is a beautiful one with so much imagery in
there, you could spend a lifetime just painting the imagery in it.
NB: Do you listen to music while you paint?
JL: Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.
NB: What are you painting right now?
JL: The rest of The Narcissist. The framework of
trying to contain this thing that canít be contained. Iím trying
to build the frame to look like a steel containment around the
fire of the narcissism, but itís losing. It has to, because if the
rivets hold the rest of it will melt down.
NB: How do you think people will see the National Vietnam
Veterans Museum in 50 years?
JL: In 50 years it will be ancient history because there
wonít be many around who have a recollection of Vietnam as a
practical experience or as a daily experience. I think if theyíre
looking at it in terms of other expressions, comparing it to WWII
or other events, theyíll say thereís something really different
about this one. I think theyíll see the agony. It doesnít
celebrate the glories of war like the stylized versions of WWI or
NB: When weíre talking about the experience of Vietnam and
why itís so powerful and why that power translates so well into
painting, what do you think that is?
JL: I think itís the intensity of it and the images that
are left in your mind from that experience. They were very intense
experiences, which left me with just a wealth of images to create
art. I could spend the rest of my life just painting things that I
remember from Vietnam. Even those things that arenít directly
related to Vietnam--like jungle scenes--have a tone of that
intensity. I painted a picture of a woman, and I called it
Buried in Life because sheís still alive but sheíd probably be
better off dead. I know people that are still alive and theyíd be
better off dead because the quality of their life isnít much after
NB: I think that without that experience, we wouldnít have
the openness to other aspects of life that have equally powerful
JL: Thatís right. I think some people look at those images
and say, "Oh, theyíre awful." I look at them and donít even think
theyíre awful, but thatís what life is about. There are some
pretty gruesome things that go on right here in this city that
would stand up to some of the things we saw in Vietnam. From the
standpoint of violence, we've got it right here in the streets.
NB: John, how does the creative process work for you? When
you get an idea, where do you think it comes from and where does
it go? What are your next steps?
JL: I might be reading something or walking down the street
and see something that reminds me of an incident that has an
emotional hook in it. I start thinking about it and thinking about
it, and then I start doing some sketches. I look through a huge
file of reference pictures that I use for composition. And then I
start putting the ideas together. Thereís no set format, not like
a cookbook where I do it the same every time.
My painting, Death Sentence, where this young guy is
opening up his draft notice, came because I saw somebody opening
an envelope and the whole image just jumped into my mind. It was
there and now itís a matter of executing it.
For this piece I did of a woman from a Rilke poem, The Song
the Widow Sings, I saw a picture of a bride in some
advertisement in a magazine. Sheís looking over her shoulder. I
had an image of this friend of mine who went to Hawaii to get
married and came back to our river division and was killed within
the month. It was like, sheís hardly out of her gown and heís
already dead and buried, and so her looking over her shoulder was
life was going in one direction and something happened where sheís
looking back. I painted just a silhouette of pall-bearers carrying
Itís that image or thought that strikes you and becomes a
picture in your mind. What can I do with it? I have a lot of
sketches Iíve drawn, some of them poorly but they capture the
idea. I can always go back later and dress it up or move it
around. At least itís preserved for later.
NB: If a piece of work doesnít convey a good strong idea
then itís just almost wrapping paper. When you look at the
literature that has been created in this world that has some power
to it, itís not about sunny, happy things.
JL: I think thatís true. The Pollyanna way of looking at
things has never been my style. The things Iíve painted have been
on the downward side of life but I still say that that has a theme
of encouragement there, because Iím not painting someone whoís
just blown his head off. The fact that theyíre still alive in
spite of everything: thereís still a spark that keeps them going.
NB: What do you think the future holds for you,
painting-wise? How are you planning on working?
JL: Well, Iíve made a decision to sell out my interest in a
company I started 13 years ago so that Iíll have more time to
paint and spend at the museum. Itís been an interlude here with
not painting much, but I picked up the brush last night to finish
a piece I started about a month ago. I see the need to focus on
spending some time every week painting. Thereís such a hole there
if Iím not doing it. Itís like none of this other stuff matters as
much. I know what I love to do. I know where my interests are. To
not do it is like going without food. Pretty soon you starve
yourself to death. I need to take that sketchbook and pick one and
do it, and then pick the next one and do it, and just keep doing
it. Because there is no hierarchy, itís just in the doing.
Ned Broderick heads the National Vietnam Veterans Museum in
Chicago. Former brown water Navy man John Laemmar is a painter
whose works at the museum include Last Patrol, a 1997 oil