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An illustration of 5 men sitting around a living room table.

One of Steve Mumford's paintings depicting a scene from life during the Iraq War.

An artist embedded

Steve Mumford brings his work to U and talks about his Iraq experience

By Jamie Proulx

Published on November 5, 2005

His paintings show the vividness, hardship, and unsettling normalcy of the war in Iraq. Palm trees serve as the backdrop for military Humvees; young boys wait for them to pass before crossing the street to buy milk. Captured in sepia tones, passionate blues, and charcoal, Steve Mumford's pieces are heartfelt and full of real life.

In 2004, Mumford spent more than 10 months in Iraq with the Army's Third Infantry Division--as an embedded journalist--documenting everyday life activities as well as heated moments on the battlefield.

In a special appearance, Mumford will give a presentation of his work and discuss his experiences at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs on the Twin Cities campus from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 9.

"Understanding the accomplishments and setbacks in Iraq is daunting," says Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, co-sponsor of the event. "Steve Mumford makes an extraordinary contribution in taking us beyond a photograph or news clip. He uses his paintings to capture the complexity of Iraqi life and the day-to-day experiences of American soldiers."

During his stay in Iraq, Mumford published several journal entries online through Artnet Magazine, documenting his personal feelings and emotional reactions as much as the happenings around him.

"Even though I'd been in Iraq before, I was nervous about this trip. The reports we get in the U.S. make things seem bleak and more dangerous than before," Mumford writes upon his arrival in Baghdad. "Luckily, my impressions don't quite bear this out--at least not yet."

Mumford's journey took him into the heart of Baghdad and the Iraqi War. He chose to document and sketch everything he encountered. He gives this account of meeting a military officer with the National Guard, reminding the reader about the "everyday people" fighting this war.

"I'm ushered past the razor wire, dirt beams, and tall gates, rolling my luggage behind me. At the entrance I meet Capt. Jack McClellan, the PAO [public affairs officer] and personnel officer for the battalion," writes Mumford. "He's a friendly guy, with a decidedly nonmilitary bearing, informal and relaxed. Back in the States, he teaches history at Jefferson County High School. ...Jack is in a particularly good mood at the moment, because his wife just sent him the latest season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD."

Mumford's unique mission of capturing life through art rather than sound bites and short news segments gave him a different perspective on Iraqi civilians as well. He encountered high interest in what he was doing everywhere he went.

"Drawing here takes a little getting used to. The Iraqis are intensely interested in most things western, so the presence of an American sitting on a stoop or at a cafe making a drawing always elicits an avid audience. Every brushstroke is watched, and people have many questions," writes Mumford in his journals. "The Iraqi sense of personal space is very different from a westerner's; here people crowd in so close they're touching me, and men feel free to stab at the paper to point out someone I've drawn whom they know."

Following Mumford's presentation of his work, local experts will discuss the intersection of art and politics. Panelists include Jacobs; Lynn Lukkas, associate professor of art at the University of Minnesota; and Diane Mullin, associate curator of the Weisman Art Museum.

The event is free and open to the public. Registration is not required. For directions and parking information, visit the Humphrey Institute's Web site.