Santa Rosa artist honored by Marine Corps group
Before he became a prolific, decorated painter of landscapes and portraits, John Deckert was a Marine.
The Rincon Valley resident enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves less than a week after he graduated from high school in 1966. After completing boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, he spent six months training with the Marines, but was not activated.
Fifty years later, Deckert had a kind of homecoming when he was commissioned to execute paintings for the combat art program, sponsored by the National Museum of the Marine Corps, in Washington, D.C. That program showcases the work of talented active-duty Marines, reservists and civilian artists, who depict Marines in a variety of roles and missions.
During a two-week “assignment” at the Marine Air Corps station in Miramar last July, Deckert made a 3- by 4-foot oil-on-linen painting of Maj. Catherine Burns at the helm of a C-130, out for a nighttime aerial refueling.
Burns and Deckert struck up a friendship. She gave him a challenge coin from her previous deployment in Iraq. The coin has her squadron number and nickname on one side, a skull on the other.
“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Deckert, 72, who has since written Burns to assure her the coin has “brought me good mojo.”
That could explain, in part, some good news that recently came Deckert’s way. His paintings earned him this year’s award for “combat art,” bestowed annually by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. That group recognizes 19 winners in a variety of fields, including reporting, still photography and poetry, for “using their extraordinary talents to tell a piece of the Marine Corps story,” said Maj. Gen. James Kessler, president of the foundation.
Deckert is in training for the awards dinner, which was scheduled for late May but has been pushed back to October due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s swimming 2 miles most days in his backyard pool. Turns out Gen. James Mattis will also be getting an award for his recent book, “Call Sign Chaos.”
“I don’t want to stand on the same stage as General Mattis and look like some flabbergasted civilian,” he said. “Out of respect for him I want to be in good shape.”
Deckert explained on his website he is “drawn to intimate scenes and people” and “the slight gesture of unguarded moments, the revelation of vulnerable humanity.”
In addition to his time at Miramar, he was embedded for several weeks at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton north of San Diego and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, in the Mojave Desert. Marines had been told what he was doing, and quickly adjusted to his presence. His combat paintings were based on scenes and subjects he would photograph on his iPhone.
After taking those pictures, recalled Alec Shumate, a sketch artist who worked alongside Deckert at Miramar, “John would go back back to his study to make these massive, beautiful oil paintings.”
While Deckert’s paintings aren’t minimalist, Shumate said, “he’s a master of knowing when to stop, which in art is a very big deal. A lot of people will paint a painting to death, go overboard with it. John’s work has a very energetic, lifelike quality, and part of that is, he knows enough to quit while he’s ahead.”
In Twentynine Palms, Deckert worked alongside illustrator Victor Juhasz, well known for his cover art for Rolling Stone, among other projects. Juhasz described Deckert’s work as “colorful and coloristic.” Much of the story of his paintings, he said, “comes out in his very careful planning of where he drops the colors, to direct the attention of the viewers.”
He admired Deckert’s knack for combining “realistic” illustration with “very abstract, West Coast approaches to color and composition” that reminded Juhasz of another ex-Marine, the artist Richard Diebenkorn.
Both Shumate and Juhasz expressed wonder at Deckert’s prolific output. “I don’t think he sleeps,” said Juhasz, “which is how he can produce so much quality work.”
Deckert’s energy level on Marine bases belied his septuagenarian status. He is never more animated than when describing the moments he spent essentially hanging off the tail ramp of a C-130 at 10,000 feet while snapping pictures of an aerial refueling.
“It was definitely cool, to see his energy,” said Shumate, 26, who was whooping and laughing along with Deckert on that tail ramp. Both were passengers, also, on an MV-22 Osprey, weaving and banking through canyon country in Arizona.
“I was the one getting airsick,” Shumate said. “John had his camera out, taking pictures, happy as could be.”
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88.