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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."