They called him a public affairs officer, among many other military titles, but that’s not the way Dennis Linn saw it.
“I’m an artist,” he said. “I’ve always considered myself an artist first.”
“Glory” by Dennis Linn.
Linn is representing Rapid City, South Dakota, at this year’s National Veterans Creative Arts Festival with his mixed media piece, “Glory,” a combination painting and sculpture, if you will, of Westminster Abbey. It features paint, sand, modeling clay and crushed glass to recreate the famous gothic church of London that dates back to 1245. His other piece, “The Patriot – Will and Moral Courage,” took a gold medal in the Oil Painting category.
The creation took him too many hours to count, but that’s not the point of the work.
“Lots of people ask, ‘How long?’ I’m guessing six months. You’d lose your mind trying to figure it out. I know it took six months on and off. There is so much fine detail, it takes many, many hours. Sometimes I’ll work on a piece for a year or more.
“It is absolutely therapy and therapy is good,” he added. “It takes your mind off the everyday stresses that could be affecting you. If you’re creating, your mind is on something else, and that keeps you healthy.”
For “Glory,” Linn used a photograph he took of the church while he was still in the military more than 15 years earlier.
“I wanted the perspective of looking up at it into space,” he said. “I wanted to go back to that feeling of the old, gothic architects, where you look at the piece and it’s uplifting.”
It’s a time-intensive process.
“I pretty much sketch it out, paint, then use sand and modeling paste. Then I paint it again. I used modeling paste on the window, but it didn’t turn out clear, so I had to sand it down. It’s really hard to sand that off, but I never think a piece is ruined. You can always fix it or use a mistake to your advantage.”
That, he said, is a good philosophy for life: Never give up, even when there’s a mistake.
“That’s the way everyone who competes in this art festival should feel. If you have something to express or show the world, don’t give up. If you don’t make it, don’t give up. It’s the process, not the goal to go to the festival. The goal is the journey,” Linn said.
Linn has come a long way since he won his first contest – a 3rd grade safety poster contest. He enlisted in the Air Force for four years in 1972, but kept doing art on the side. He used G.I. Bill money to go back to school for a master’s degree in fine arts. He came back in as an officer, at one time becoming the art director for Air Force recruiting service, then branching into public affairs, inspector general and other areas, before retiring in 2004 as a lieutenant colonel.
“It was a good military career,” he said. “Sometimes it felt like I was a civilian on active-duty.”
Several of his pieces hang in the Pentagon to this day.
“Dana Priest (a reporter for the Washington Post) told me once, ‘Anyone can become a colonel, but not everyone can be an artist,” he said. “I like being an artist. That’s what I am.”
Gary Kunich is the Public Affairs officer at the Milwaukee VAMC.