Carl "Les" Fordahl: He Drew The War
BY JIM BELSHAW
As art often does, VVA member Les
Fordahl’s sketches invite the viewer into his images. Drawn
largely in pencil, the scenes evoke a time and a place whose
details will come easily to those who are intimate with them.
But even the casual viewer will have little problem inserting
himself into the artist’s world. The Vietnam War is woven into
the fabric of America, and Fordahl’s art takes us back to it.
A two-man crew working in a gun emplacement. Houses built on
stilts on a riverbank and shaded by palm trees. A hootch with a
bare light bulb overhead and cans of Coke nearby. A close-up of
a Huey crew. A denuded landscape with concertina wire stretching
around its perimeter. Grunts with weapons walking toward
helicopters. A Chinook flying over an empty, battle-scarred
ground. A row of small Vietnamese river boats lined up along a
dock. A Donut Dolly. Sandbag bunkers on a firebase. A Special
Forces camp near the Cambodia border.
“I drew the war,” Fordahl said. “I sat on firebases and
sketched. I sketched on the streets. I sketched on the rivers.
Wherever I was.”
The artist’s path to Vietnam wasn’t drawn in a straight line.
After high school and a year of commercial art training, he went
into the Army and initially was assigned to train for the Army
Security Agency. (“Spooks,” he said.) But an inexplicable and
temporary bout of deafness washed him out of spook school.
Declining a medical discharge, Fordahl transferred to the ASA
art department at a base in Virginia. His interest in art went
back a long way “I was eight years old when I started
sketching,” he said. “Then I went to painting by the numbers and
then painting without the numbers.”
Fordahl’s first commissioned artwork, a waterfall landscape,
came when he was 14 years old. A woman in his neighborhood paid
him handsomely to do the painting.
He worked for six months at the
ASA base as a draftsman/illustrator. Then it was on to Europe
and, finally, Vietnam in 1969. His first six months were at Cam Ranh Bay, where Fordahl worked on communication system charts.
When that assignment came to an end, he was asked where he
wanted to go.
“I knew guys in the Combat Arts
section,” he said. “I’d already started sketching on my own. I
got transferred to the section. We had a four-man team that
traveled all over Vietnam.”
Pleased to be doing the work, a
question remained: Why was he doing the work?
“I assumed it was historical,”
Fordahl said. “We were unit combat artists. Working in the war
environment provides unique challenges for an artist. There were
times when other matters took precedence over art.
“I did a painting of junks on the
Saigon River,” he said. “There was an intelligence building in
the background. I had to remove all the identifying marks from
the painting. It ended up a nice scene of Vietnamese junks. It
had a Renaissance look. But it didn’t have an intelligence
building in it.”
At the firebases, the artists drew straws to see who would go on
ground operations or ride in the helicopters or stay at the
firebase to work. From Firebase Bastogne, Fordahl brought back a
memory that stays with him, though it was not something he drew.
Having drawn the straw that meant
he would stay at the firebase to sketch, Fordahl watched as a
patrol returned from a two-day operation. He was well aware of
the striking difference between himself and the men returning
from the jungle. His uniform was clean and starched; theirs were
ragged and filthy. The patrol had the look of men who had been
somewhere he had not.
“You could tell we weren’t grunts
and they were,” he said. “And one of them came up to me and to
this day I don’t know who he was, but he comes up to me and he
had to be dead tired from walking in the jungle for two days.
And he says, ‘If you need a place to stay, there’s a bunk down
there.’ He pointed to a hole in the ground where everyone slept.
He tells me to grab the bottom bunk on the right. It was his
Fordahl said he couldn’t imagine something like this happening
back at Long Binh, where the artists were based.
“If I went back to Long Binh and
I was filthy dirty and I was hitchhiking, nobody would pick me
up. Neither would the buses,” he said. “I don’t think they knew
there was a war going on at Long Binh. It was such a contrast in
attitude. Those guys on the front line and up in the hills
didn’t have much, but they’d give you what they could.”
Back home in Minnesota after the war, Fordahl went to work for
the U.S. Postal Service, where he is a 29-year employee today.
He remained active in art, though, continuing to paint and
sketch. As a member of the board of directors of the Bloomington
Arts Center, conversations naturally enough led to his work in
Vietnam. One day, a fellow board member asked if he was familiar
with the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.
“I hadn’t heard of it,” he said.
“I called them and told them what I did over there, and they
said they wanted some of my stuff.”
In Minnesota, he found his artwork to be surprisingly effective
in meeting other Vietnam veterans. At a fundraiser for a friend
dying of cancer, he was working with his Vietnam sketches when
the president of his union asked, “Where did you get those?”
Fordahl told him about his work in Vietnam.
“He said, ‘I know those guys,’”
Fordahl said. “He asked where I was. I told him Firebase Bastogne. He had been there.”
Then came the janitor.
“He recognized one of the
sketches from Camp Eagle,” Fordahl said. “He was there. He saw
this pastel I did of an artillery crew. It had three guys in it.
He recognized one of them. He said, ‘Hey, that’s Corporal
Parker.’ It kind of blew my mind that they were recognizing
these people and places.”
In his work at the Bloomington
Art Center Les Fordahl finds himself often working with young
people in the schools on projects that promote art. He’s
continuing his own art education as well.
“I studied Monet last summer,” he
said. “Light, color, impressionism. That’s what I’m doing in my