By Aubrey Hobart
Roswell Museum and Art Center
Curator of Collections and Exhibitions
We get bored as hell at times here — in fact one of our directives from Biddle telling us of subject matter to paint is the ‘boredom of war.’ It was exciting where we went and I will never forget the experience, brief as it was, of our being directly in the middle of a hot-spot and no kidding. We got a good taste of what it feels like to slave and sweat in the steaming stink of a jungle and can well imagine what it means to die or lie wounded in the cranking slimy mud.” — Howard Cook, July 13, 1943.
In 1943, the 41-year-old artist Howard Cook was sent to the South Pacific as part of a project to document the war. Assigned to the Army’s 43rd Infantry Division, Cook led the War Art Unit, a small group of three men who would travel with the soldiers and draw and paint whatever they saw. While the artists weren’t obligated to fight, they did have to live in the same uncomfortable conditions and defend themselves if necessary. This led to one memorable occasion on Rendova — part of the Solomon Islands — when Cook had to dig a foxhole to hide in while Japanese bombers “came down over and lay their eggs in our midst.”
Life in the Army wasn’t all bad. In letters that he wrote to his wife, Cook describes getting good food occasionally, like fresh fruit and ice cream, although it seems that cheese sandwiches and coffee were more common. He also got leave to visit some soldier friends in another camp and his journey sounds more like a fun camping trip with the boys than a brief respite during wartime. Cook managed to put together an art exhibition, as well, by hanging up the works he and his unit had made inside their living quarters and inviting the soldiers to come see them. He bragged that his large watercolor stole the show, making the other artists’ sketches look small and sad by comparison.
Working in a war zone, however, comes with a host of problems. Cook does not seem to have liked his artist colleagues very much. He described one as having “a most terrific inferiority complex, a sorry physical figure, no chin, a blanched wormy pasty complexion, a slumped figure like an old man, little watery eyes and a waxy blob of a nose, but what venom can spout out of all this pulpy mass … Lord God, you have no idea what I have been through with that unmentionable cockroach.”
Politics also became a serious concern of Cook’s when he learned that Congress voted on July 1, 1943 to end funding for the War Art Unit. Appropriations would be cut off for all civilians and military outside of the United States, and all military inside the United States on Aug. 31. Having only been overseas for a few months, Cook was worried about losing his governmental funding, but he fortunately found a loophole for civilians to be employed as painters inside the U.S. He accepted a job offer from Collier’s Magazine and spent his last month in the South Pacific sketching as many scenes as he could, writing detailed notes about color and detail in the margins, so that he could reproduce them as paintings when he returned home.
Prior to being shipped out, Cook lived in Taos with his wife Barbara Latham, who was an accomplished artist in her own right. His letters to her aren’t particularly sentimental or romantic, but he is clearly concerned about her well-being. “Don’t worry about our well going dry — and don’t ever go down in it, because it isn’t safe for you to be fooling around down there. The ladder is slippery and other things are bad.” On occasion, he mentions an unspecified illness she is facing and the prospect of surgery. Other times he worries about her being all alone on their property, suggesting she have a relative come stay with her for a few weeks or months. In the end, Cook returned home sometime in September of 1943, and since Barbara Latham lived until 1989, it seems that everything turned out all right.
The Roswell Museum and Art Center is very fortunate to house the Howard Cook archive, including more than 900 works of art and dozens of touching letters to his wife during World War II. This historic resource is a draw for scholars from all over the country. In fact, the Roswell Museum and Art Center recently worked with World War II Magazine to include 10 Cook paintings and drawings in a featured article that will be available in their October 2019 issue and online. Several of Cook’s original paintings from that time (and one by Barbara Latham) are also now on view in our new show, Decades: 1930s and 1940s, which runs through Feb. 9, 2020.