The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

September/October 2002      

 

Aurence Telling True Tales of War
Through Primitive Art

Go to Aurence's web site

View Aurence's art

 

 

BY  BERNARD EDELMAN  

Some kids are natural athletes. Give them a ball or a bat and a bit of coaching, and they blossom on the court or the field. Some folks are natural storytellers with an instinctive feel for character, an ear for idiom, a knack for plot. Others are natural artists. While all the instruction at the best schools by the top teachers cannot instill ability in most of us, these artists only need paint, canvas, and the time to develop their technique and hone their artistic vision.

A modern primitive who signs his increasingly sought-after works "Aurence" is one of those naturals whose innate abilities have found form and substance with brush and canvas. And not after years of struggle, either: Almost three decades after Larry Hancock returned from Vietnam, where he served as a Marine helicopter doorgunner flying out of Marble Mountain, the artist "Aurence" flashed brilliance on his first canvas.

For years, Larry Hancock worked in an accounting office, doing data entry. Painting was his wife Patty Biejunís bailiwick. "I had been trying to get him to paint for ages," Biejun, a primitive painter and teacher, said during a telephone interview from their home in Demorest, Georgia. "I used to go around to art shows and heíd help me set up. Heíd make me frames. But heíd always insist that he had no talent for folk art."

Then one day in 1994, she said, "I guess he just got tired of hearing me nag him. I cut him a piece of tin maybe 20 inches by 12 inches and he took that and some paints and just started painting. When he showed me what heíd done, I saw art. Real art. Iíd been around folk art since forever, and he had a substance and a style the likes of which Iíd just never seen."

That first painting centered around a big angel with sparks emanating from its body. There was a fireball in the sky and a white dog - Patty at first thought it was a wolf - two elements that would become leit motifs in later paintings. In the background was a mountain.

Patty was astounded. "People buy my stuff because itís cute, because the colors work well in their living room or their dining area," she said. "Aurence, though, made you think about what you were seeing, even in that very first work."

Patty wasnít the only one blown away by that initial effort. A well-known local folk artist, Linda Anderson, who lives a couple of miles from Aurence and Patty, was so taken that she sponsored him and encouraged him to pursue his art.

Beyond the words of encouragement, it was the sale of his first piece a week or two after he painted it that convinced Aurence he had talent. At one of Pattyís art shows, he put out the painting. "Someone came along and just bought it," Patty said. For $10. But that sale, and the oohs and aahs that the work elicited, moved Aurence to start putting paint to canvas in earnest.

Experimenting with different media - heís partial to using the tiny vials of auto touch-up paint that he applies with a brush tip the size of a lead pencil - he started to synthesize memory and art: scenes of his boyhood in Porterdale and at a monastery in Conyers, Georgia; snow scenes in places he had visited; still lifes.

Six months after that first painting, memories of the Vietnam War emerged and took form. And took off.

Aurenceís first Vietnam-inspired work featured a crude rendition of a helicopter surrounded by fireballs, with a white dog watching from green mountains. A fireball, Aurence came to realize, represented "a message from íNam, a memory implanted in me that Iíll never forget." And the animal that Patty thought at first was a wolf was actually a little dog that hung around the hooches at Marble Mountain, its name lost to time.

The second Vietnam War painting was of a landing strip with a supply plane coming in supplies. It, too, embraced fireballs and the little white dog.

"When I paint a scene from Vietnam," said Aurence, in his southern drawl, "itís as if my metabolism slows down. I paint until it all feels right." Which is usually when every square centimeter on the canvas has been filled. His Vietnam War canvases are filled with images of corpsmen and pilots, nurses and crewmen and donut dollies, and the bloody wounded.

"To this day, I still cannot deal with the blood that was part of my life every day over there," he said. "No matter how weíd wash out the chopper, the blood was always there."

The blood was also his. Aurence was wounded during a mortar attack on Marble Mountain in July 1967, his eleventh month in country. Medevaced to the hospital ship Repose, what might have been a relatively short period of convalescence was lengthened by a month when the Repose took on casualties from a fire that devastated the deck of the USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin. Aurence was aboard the Repose when it went into drydock for a month at Subic Bay in the Philippines.

When he was in Southeast Asia, Aurence, like most of his buddies, was not concerned with the politics of the war, only with surviving it. "We were told to do a job and we did it," he said. It was only years later, after all the bad dreams and good books, that he came to see the waste of war which, like the blood in his old chopper- could not easily be washed from memory.

In several of his works Aurence incorporates the tombstone and dog tags of his best buddy, Danny Dean McGee, whose squad was wiped out during a firefight in February 1967. In his most recent set of Vietnam War work, he integrates grave markers and tombstones with the familiar imagery of white dog and fireballs, chopper and mountains, and some of the places into which his choppers flew: Khe Sanh, Con Thien, Chu Lai, Dong Ha. And heís recently started a series that will "tell the story" of some of the important battles during the long years of the war.

As Aurenceís painting grew more prolific, Pattyís artistic efforts ceased. "I feel as if I canít paint next to him," she said. "I donít have anything to offer to the art world any more." She now focuses her energies as her husbandís muse, business manager, and Web designer.

Because Aurence doesnít exhibit in museums or galleries, the only venue to view his work is at his website, www.aurence.net Many come and many buy. His work, which ranges in price from under $200 to almost $4,000, can be found in corporate boardrooms and private collections, at museums and colleges and theaters. He accepts commissions - snow scenes and Christmas scenes are in particular demand - yet he canít paint them fast enough to fill the demand for his work. And doesnít churn out canvases on an assembly line.

"It is not enough to slop something on a canvas or to tell a story you know. You have to paint from the soul," Aurence writes on his website. "If you donít, you have only added another piece of junk art in an overwhelmingly stale art world."

While the commissions pay the bills, the Vietnam War work stirs the soul. And not only Larry Hancockís soul.

"Before I began painting," he said, "I never talked about Vietnam, but I never forgot it. I dreamt about it. I wondered about it, about why my life was spared during that attack on Marble Mountain while others around me didnít make it."

"What the public saw during the war, mostly on the evening news, was all the killing, the search-and-destroy operations, My Lai. All negatives," he said. "They never really saw the young soldiers trying to do their job."

Which is what the 19-year-old doorgunner saw as the blood flowed. His art is an attempt to tell true tales as a tribute to those who died. At its core it exposes a stained yet radiant innocence of boys who became men and were forever changed during the process.

"In Vietnam," Aurence says, "there were some good times you donít forget. There were some bad times that donít forget you. No one ever leaves Vietnam."

   

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