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Art finds a way: Using a lesson from the old masters, a resourceful serviceman captures moving images

 

Veteran Jerry Franks of New Hope displays a painting Wednesday he did after serving during the Vietnam War with a medical evacuation unit. In Southeast Asia, Franks used whatever he could round up to occasionally paint, even making paintbrushes with his own hair. He is pictured at Mississippi University for Women, where he graduated after military service with the Army and later Navy. Several of his paintings are with the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.

Veteran Jerry Franks of New Hope displays a painting Wednesday he did after serving during the Vietnam War with a medical evacuation unit. In Southeast Asia, Franks used whatever he could round up to occasionally paint, even making paintbrushes with his own hair. He is pictured at Mississippi University for Women, where he graduated after military service with the Army and later Navy. Several of his paintings are with the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

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Franks painted this image while in Vietnam, using brushes he'd made with bamboo, industrial glues and his own hair, for bristles.

Franks painted this image while in Vietnam, using brushes he'd made with bamboo, industrial glues and his own hair, for bristles.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Jerry Franks painted a fellow serviceman holding the helmet of a friend who was killed.

Jerry Franks painted a fellow serviceman holding the helmet of a friend who was killed.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

The 236 Dustoff medevac unit is pictured in action in Jerry Franks' art.

The 236 Dustoff medevac unit is pictured in action in Jerry Franks' art.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

After serving in the Army from 1969 to 1971, Franks enlisted in the Navy and served for 13 years, assigned to the Marine Corps. He's pictured in front of an oversized mural he painted while in service.

After serving in the Army from 1969 to 1971, Franks enlisted in the Navy and served for 13 years, assigned to the Marine Corps. He's pictured in front of an oversized mural he painted while in service.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch

 

A magnolia painting by Jerry Franks is pictured.

A magnolia painting by Jerry Franks is pictured.

 

 

Jan Swoope

 

 

Jerry Franks savors the quiet that surrounds his log cabin in the New Hope community. He shares it with Nancy, his wife of almost 37 years. He's partial to sitting out front, looking toward the pond, watching magnolia trees adapt to the seasons. Life hasn't always been this peaceful.  

 

Franks' days and nights were once punctuated by the pulsating slaps of a UH-1 Huey helicopter's rotor blades. As a combat flight medic with the 236 Dustoff unit in Vietnam, his medevac mission was to get in, pick up the wounded and dead and get out, sometimes taking fire. It was a calling he volunteered for, much like he signed up for the Army in the first place, two weeks after graduating with the Class of '69 at S.D. Lee High School in Columbus.  

 

"From my Southern background, and from reading scripture in the Bible, I was confused about what was going on in Vietnam," Franks said. "But at the same time I knew I had my duty to fulfill." 

 

He wasn't fully aware of it at the time, but research he's done since has uncovered a long line of patriotic ancestors, all the way back to the Revolutionary War. 

 

"I found I've had this history flowing through our family," said Franks, now 68. "We've loved our country for a long time." 

 

One other thing Franks didn't realize when he left for Southeast Asia was how much his high school art lessons from Frances Land and Margaret Smith would help blunt a few hard edges of service in wartime. 

 

 

 

Hair brush 

 

Franks had shown artistic talent at Lee High, but in Da Nang, Vietnam, that was low on anyone's list of priorities. After a while, though, he began to notice most machine parts shipped in plywood crating. If he pulled the nails out and cut discarded plywood into squares and rectangles, they could work as crude canvases.  

 

When he was lucky enough to get hold of leftover paints from around the base -- especially the three primary colors, red, yellow and blue -- he could mix almost any other color he wanted. He'd learned that in high school art. But what about brushes?  

 

"I could get industrial glue and find plenty of bamboo, but couldn't find any bristles," Franks said. That's when he remembered another art lesson. "Mrs. Land had talked about how the old masters used to make paint brushes out of their hair." So Franks discreetly started growing a section of his hair a little longer and saved it with help from the Vietnamese woman who cut it. 

 

"My first couple of (paint) brushes were disasters," he said with humor. "I had blonde hair all over the place." But eventually, he made something that worked. "Nothing to really be proud of, but it got the job done."  

 

The resourceful Franks also beveled branches to use as makeshift painting tools. "In a situation where you had nothing, you had to do some thinking," he said.  

 

 

 

Freedom bird 

 

One particular painting brought the serviceman's talent out in the open. 

 

Franks was working Sick Call in Da Nang, where he would "suture up what was cut and medicate what was ill." Spirits were low. 

 

"Everybody was always talking about making it back home, about what they were going to do when they made it back to the States," he recounted. So one evening in his quarters he pulled out a piece of "skinny plywood" and gathered his remnants of paint.  

 

"I painted a freedom bird -- that's what all the troops called the flight back home -- a jet airliner taking off from Da Nang Air Force Base back to the States. " 

 

He depicted the plane soaring into the sky, leaving behind Da Nang with its people on bicycles, carrying food stuffs on pieces of wood across their shoulders, a bag on each end.  

 

"Everybody dreamed of that airplane, that last trip home, and it just hit the right spot," Franks said.  

 

After sprucing up his helmet with a silhouette of his home state, magnolia flowers and "Columbus, Mississippi," his buddies wanted signature designs on their head gear as well, especially cartoons, which Franks was adept at. 

 

"All of a sudden, there were all these guys wanting me to paint them something," he said with modesty. "From then on, basically my secondary job was unit artist." 

 

 

 

Unexpected doors 

 

Franks' art opened lines of communication. He carried a deep faith with him into service, and several of the men recognized it. Away from home and family, in the harsh reality of a long war, some sought him out to talk. 

 

"The only answers I could find were through scripture and prayer," Franks said. "I told everybody up front I do not know the answers, but I know God has answered me and my prayers."  

 

Franks' service in Vietnam ended in 1971.  

 

"I had no intention of making the military my career. I just wanted to do my duty, come back here, work at Bosch or something like that," he said. But shortly after his return, he signed up again -- this time with the Navy, where he was assigned to the Marine Corps. He stayed in for 13 years and served in Lebanon in a medical battalion.  

 

After retiring, Franks and his wife, who was formerly in the Navy reserves, settled in New Hope. He pursued a degree in commercial art and design at Mississippi University for Women. His medevac service remained a part of him, however. It's what inspired much of his military-theme paintings, several of which are now with the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. Digital images can be seen at collection.nvam.org.  

 

Former MUW classmate Shawn Dickey remembers Franks' work at the time. Dickey now chairs the Department of Art. 

 

"He's so full of life and joy, and yet his images were really touching to look at and to think about -- guys who were 18 or 19 years old experiencing war.  

 

"As a viewer, I was proud of his service to the country, but also proud of his dedication to sharing those memories with everyone."  

 

Vietnam was a hard time.  

 

"People were shot to pieces in more ways than anyone would dare show on TV," Franks said. "One of the reasons I continued flying -- and it's basically the same reason I kept my art up there -- when we'd pull those wounded guys onto the floor of the helicopter, I would see hope in their eyes." 

 

It was a unique, special period in his life, "because every time you got in that helicopter you knew it could be your last, but at the same time, you knew there were a bunch of other men whose lives depended on your completing that mission."  

 

At some point after retiring from the military, Franks' subject of artistic choice became magnolias, the same blooms he'd painted on his helmet as a teenager in Vietnam. Their effect was calming, the veteran said.  

 

One of Franks' grandsons is now in the Army. The family recently attended graduation ceremonies at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. 

 

"I know going in the Army doesn't sound like the most fun thing, but I've never seen him so happy. It's something about the discipline ... It's the type of discipline where you are in a very bad situation and someone says 'follow me,' and you know it's your life and their lives behind you ... it's guys working together." 

 

He likes to think there are some older veterans out there, maybe sitting by a fireplace, with grandkids crawling around them. He finds comfort in believing he did something while in service that helped make that scene possible, that helped those families continue. 

 

" ... I guess the Lord answered a whole bunch of questions for me when I was in Vietnam," Franks said.

 

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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