PUNTA GORDA — Going from art school to the Marine Corps might not be the most traditional path for an artist, but for Elize McKelvey, it was the best way to paint the stories she wanted to tell.
“To get as close as I could to combat, I had to enlist,” said McKelvey, who joined the Marines after graduating from college. “If we were to go to a foreign environment, I would have that military experience.”
While serving overseas − and back home − for just over eight years, McKelvey painted scenes of what she saw during deployment as part of the Marine Corps combat art program.
“The program has been around since World War II,” McKelvey said. “It started because we didn’t have photos or video in the Marine Corps then and they wanted Marines sharing other Marines’ stories to bring back home and show what it was like out there.”
“The program has continued on (over the years) and shows who we are as Marines,” she continued. “There have always been a few artists in the program, but I was the only active duty enlisted Marine and there was one officer.”
Her work is now on display through Saturday at the Peace River Botanical Garden & Sculpture Garden, 5827 Riverside Drive, in Punta Gorda.
“There were a lot of things that went on (in those years),” McKelvey said. “I drew illustrations and sketches and I’m still sharing a lot of stories. This is my first solo exhibit so it’s fun to see all the work on display in one location.”
She went on to say that photographs don’t always capture the moment as well as a painting.
“For me, it’s interesting because when you take a photo of a marine on down time, it doesn’t always make an interesting photo,” she said. “But when you sketch it, you are able to capture expressions (and more details).”
When asked if there were any particular pieces that stand out, she said, “there’s a story behind every piece I do, but it’s more the reaction I get from Marines who see them; I really enjoy that.”
McKelvey said she doesn’t restrict herself to any particular medium for her work.
“I actually use a ton of different mediums,” she said. “Every piece is in a different medium. If we are in a foreign environment, the less supplies, the better. You don’t want to be a liability (and so you) have to be able to pick up and move quickly.
“Stencils and a sketch book (I would use) — something easy to stowaway and take out as quick as I can. I also had a weapon to carry so I had to be mindful of all of that.”
She and other artists in the program would then take those “location sketches” and go back to a studio to develop them further.
“That’s when you take out the oils and acrylics,” McKelvey said. “Drawing Marines ... they’re not models so they’re not just going to sit there while you sketch. You have to be pretty quick.”
The Gardens are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. More information about McKelvey or the Gardens can be found at peacerivergardens.org.