I was so honored to serve in the military. The Air National Guard prepared me with great friendships, many trips that I deployed on, a funded college education and even the war-ready training gave a sense of accomplishment - too bad it had no relation to me being a graphic designer. Haha, yea you heard it - graphic designer. Pretty weird, huh? Just ask my roommie then and fellow designer herself. Annie would watch me come in from a weekend of drill in my BDUs and steel-toed boots and emerge from my room a half hour later with sweats and sketch pad ready to doodle my thoughts on a web design project for work. Yup, I lived a double life.
I couldn't help feeling a little disconnected when I would enter one world to the other. People not understanding the alien ways from the two. They really were so different. While the land of creative agencies were all about thinking outside of the box and designing little works of art the other land of military bases had you structured and organized with processes and very much in the box, or cubical. Oddly enough it wasn't until deploying to Kuwait that I had my two worlds collide.
Minus the 120 degree weather and camel spiders, it started like any other deployment of reporting to Supply and help with inventory until one of our superior officers entered the building. Major Roy Walton asked if I was the graphic designer in my “outside” job and I nodded. He then asked if I could help him with a base morale project. I, of course, said yes. We proceeded outside and down the sandy street where big cement barriers lie. One by one they were all like the color of the sand - all the same. The Major started to tell me of the project of turning one of these barriers into a work or art and then we came to a painted barrier. Filled with color and character of a squadron's mascot and drill line. I smiled and my heart started to quicken. “It gets you pumped just looking at it?” The officer asked. Sir, you have no idea, I thought. Finally something I really could excel at doing here, something that the military was asking for MY expertise on. I couldn't wait to get started!
That afternoon I sat in front of a computer and designed the mural that represented our unit. The A-10, our mission at the time, flying low to the ground with lightning in its wake. Major Walton stopped over to see my progression and congratulated me on a job well done. We both got to work gathering the supplies we needed for the mural. That evening we started the project. The officer projected my design on the barrier and together, an officer and an airmen, started the art piece. He too, had an interest in art, drawing in his spare time he had mentioned to me. Several hours later we took a step back from the barrier to view what we had done. It wasn't much but it was something, it was going to be something great, and I was a part of it. I couldn't wait till tomorrow.
My twelve hour shifts would crawl on and all I could think about was the mural that awaited me at the end of the day. I would get up on that ladder with the slight roar of the generator at my back that kept the flood lights on and the projection of my design over my shoulder…and I would paint. I did this every night until I had to leave. My rotation was up but I wanted to stay and get the job done. I tried to extend my tour but didn't succeed. I was sad to leave it unfinished even though it will be done with the officer that was staying behind along with the next rotation from base, but it wouldn't be done with my hand.
So I left the mural behind and made the twenty six hour journey home. Only the home a came back too was forever changed. I arrived and woke up on September 11th 2001 to tragedy and chaos everywhere. Guardsmen were tasked to be ready and on call for missions that may pop up. My little mural in the desert became a distant memory.
Time went on and hearts were heavy with the so much loss. What helped everyone get through this time were flags, American flags, everywhere. Little signs of patriotism, of sticking together… I was back in my creative world but with one foot in the military one. Hoping my friends that were still deployed were ok. The atmosphere at work was eerily, quiet. No fun and no interesting projects charged the air like it normally would. Then one day I received an email. It said “it's finished!” In the subject line. I opened it and the mural, my mural, was staring back at me. It was beautiful! It looked just like my mockup I designed months prior. The body of the email was written by Major Walton, which read: “We completed the barrier art, this project got everyone's spirits up during this time. Everyone loves your design and without you this wouldn't have been has good as it became. Thank you for all your hard work on this, Airmen Towle. This picture of the mural is for you!”
“What is that?” I turned around to see a fellow designer peering at my screen. “That is really cool!” I then told him it was a project that our unit did on deployment. More people circled around and looked at the barrier art. I went on to say that I created the design to it and worked on the mural until I had to leave. The rest of the unit finished it. Everyone congratulated me and thought how neat we all were with an artistic project. Buzz started to circle the offices and it felt a little more back to normal.
I smiled and looked at the email again. What a great project this was I thought. It brought my two worlds together and helped me realize art is everywhere and everywhere is…art.
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