A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2001/January 2002

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 reality.

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 January 1971.

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 amazing.

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 time.

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 kicked.

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 them.

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 in Vietnam.

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 whoís dead.

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 WWII.

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 that experience.

NB: I think that without that experience, we wouldnít have the openness to other aspects of life that have equally powerful stories.

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 a coffin.

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 painting.


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