Unlikely career path reunites art, Marine

The Baltimore Sun

Jim Butcher was servicing an F-4 jet when a colonel approached him in the hangar.

"I thought I'd done something wrong," Butcher said of the visit by Col. Raymond Henri in 1967. "But Colonel Henri had found out that I had art training, and he asked me if I was interested in being an artist for the military."

Butcher accepted the colonel's offer and joined the Marine Corps Combat Art program, which began during World War I with battlefield sketches.

The combat art program was the first of a progression of artistic endeavors for Butcher, 62, including commercial art, montages, portraits, maritime and landscape art.

Spanning more than four decades, Butcher's career illustrates the twists, turns and setbacks an artist can encounter. It also highlights the need to adjust to survive long term. A retrospective exhibit with about three dozen of Butcher's paintings opens today at the Liriodendron mansion in Bel Air.

Butcher started his artistic journey doodling in notebooks during class in elementary school. He often got in trouble for not paying attention.

"Art came naturally for me," the Bel Air resident said. "All I wanted to do was create."

After high school, Butcher enrolled in the Maryland Institute College of Art. But he found it difficult to connect art to the real world.

"I had no path for my art," Butcher said, scratching his white beard as he reminisced. "I decided that maybe art wasn't the best job for me."

Butcher left art school in 1966 and enlisted in the Marines, where Henri recruited him into the program along with several other professional artists or professors. The combat art program had been disbanded after World War II, but Henri re-established it in 1966.

Directed to record war through art, the artists drew sketches. Working from photographs, Butcher created about 136 paintings and drawings during his tour.

"It was a dream job for me," said Butcher, a Baltimore native. "I had almost walked away from art. But it found me again. And it felt so right. It was my wake-up call."

Butcher left the military and returned to Maryland in 1968. He ended up working freelance in New York City. For more than a decade, he took commercial art assignments that included designing movie posters, print advertisement art and magazine covers.

A highlight for him was a Newsweek cover that depicted the U.S. hostages in Iran, he said.

Along the way he picked up a few unconventional techniques, he said.

"Sometimes I turn my paintings upside down," Butcher said. "It gives me a different perspective. You see all sorts of things you missed when it was right side up."

Things went well for more than a decade, said Butcher.

"The work I got in New York City catapulted my income," he said. "And it helped get my name out in the business world. But eventually I was replaced by computers and younger, cheaper artists."

In 1989, he was forced to switch gears.

"A lot of artists that made a good honest living in [commercial] art were pushed aside by computers and clip art," he said. "I was left in a lurch."

Butcher sought new projects. He began painting montages - large paintings depicting several small scenes that typically hang in businesses, schools and churches. Often such works are commissioned by an institution seeking to capture its history in a work of art.

Butcher spent the next decade creating about 50 montages that ranged in price from $8,000 to $27,000.

One montage that Butcher did for an Indianapolis company marked the firm's 100 years in business. It depicts the past 100 years of world history along with the company's history, and includes scenes of the moon landing, World War I, World War II and Vietnam.

But the road twisted again. As the demand for montage-style art declined, Butcher turned to portrait painting. He has done portraits of county judges, politicians and corporate retirees. More recently he's added landscape and maritime paintings to his repertoire.

On a recent afternoon Butcher was working in his home studio, putting finishing touches on a portrait. He moved the easel so the light hit it just right and selected a paintbrush.

"I've learned to clean brushes very well," he said, pulling a brush out of a cup filled with them. "I leave the price tags on them to remind me of how much they cost."

He tapped the tip of the brush into a glob of red cadmium oil paint squeezed out onto his glass palette and began painting in a flurry of movements.

He spends five to eight hours a day, six days a week painting.

"I used to be able to paint 16 hours a day," said Butcher with a chuckle. "But as I get older, I'm not as hungry to create as I used to be."

Jim Butcher - Paintings is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays until April 24 at The Gallery at Liriodendron. The exhibit is free. Information: 410-879-4424.

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