Special thanks to Dr. Karl Michel & Jerry Kykisz for their support of Ron and his work, and for their help with this profile. Paintings are acrylic on canvas, dimensions shown in inches.
This article first published in Raw Vision Magazine - Issue 101 Spring 2019
Ronald Mann (b. 1943)
Vietnam Veteran Artist
Art Type or Medium: Environment/Installation; Painting; Photography
Viewable: by appointment
Secular or Religious: Secular with Religious aspects
“A child can paint better than that,” Ronald Mann’s ex-wife would say. “I do agree with you, but I’m just going to paint anyway. It [makes] no difference to me whether it’s childish or not.”
Outside a tavern near Flint, Michigan about forty years earlier, he’d been caught-up in an altercation: “the judge told me, join the Army or go to jail.” Mann, born in 1943, served one year as an Army helicopter door gunner and ground soldier, returning from Vietnam with un-diagnosed PTSD in 1968.
Unable to control the post-traumatic stress, he quit a General Motors factory job, moved often, and struggled to stay employed. His previous (deceased) wife Rickie was an amateur painter of conventional subjects – her hobby brought satisfaction during difficult times, and Mann wondered if painting might also provide some relief for himself [slide 2]. He began to paint on small unused canvas’ in 1992:
“I had to get all this cloudy shit out of my mind…I just keep painting and painting and painting…it [was] almost like an addiction. It [was] either paint or commit suicide.”
Ron Mann’s easy-going, pot-smoking, laid-back 60’s demeanor, conversational style (“that’s beautiful man, right on”), braided beard, and rose-tinted granny glasses, belie the enduring aftermath of his military service. A high-school dropout, he hasn’t had any art therapy or training, but more than twenty years after he returned, painting became his self-therapeutic way to cope with persistent anxiety. Using only black and white acrylics, memories and emotions rose to the canvas surface – his inner-demons as stark lines and simple shapes on solid white or black grounds.
“I finally jumped into something that I could express myself a little bit, I called [my first painting] Heaven or Hell [slide 3]: in Vietnam…you [were] either giving your soul to the Devil or God…you just asked Jesus [for protection] but at the same time you had to sell your soul to the Devil because you had to kill people.”
Mann recalls taking an inkblot test and telling the psychologist, “well dude, I see everything, I see more things than you can think of there.” An inspiration for some of his early paintings,“the inkblot, become a way for me to communicate again.” Bird’s Eye View (ca 1993) [slide 4] suggests an omniscient, but vacuous eye-in-the-sky with a brush eyelid shedding two black teardrops:
“When you [were] up there flying, you could see everything, [but, there] was always some…teary sadness because of what you [were] doing: …killing generations…after generations. When you kill one, you kill all of them, you know what I mean?” “Once I hit the ground, the sane part was over and insanity was on. I’ve been riding the insanity trail for awhile – that’s why I paint crazy, crazy art.”
The walls of Ron Mann’s house are covered with paintings hung floor-to-ceiling, overlapping and askew, always in flux – a helter-skelter tapestry of his inner-psyche. More than fifty years later, an early painting, A Long Way Home (ca 1992) [slide 4], keeps Mann in the company of his first kill. Hung up high in the front room, the 70×60 cm canvas depicts the skull of a Vietnamese soldier whom had fired on the American gunship helicopter. Weeks later, after seeing his decayed corpse still lying where he fell, the crew landed and brought the skull back to clean and carry as a trophy:
“I call it the Long Way Home, because I don’t know whether the cat ever got home or not because we had his skull with us…but, they had us hanging on fences [with] dicks cut off and all that stuff too. So, I guess it was the same thing.” He motions up towards the oversized skull wearing a conical straw ‘coolie’ hat over livened eyes: “so that’s the reminder of war.”
While surrounded by his work, Ron finds it reassuring to chill out, smoke some (medical) marijuana, and see through the cannabis haze that all his paintings are still holding their precipitating emotions in check. Ron Mann doesn’t think of himself as an artist, and insists that he “can’t paint.” Outside a small band of veteran artists, he has no interest in art. He works in response to personal feelings: each painting dresses a psychic wound that will never heal, and none are offered for sale. He said about an official treatment program:
“If I would have [done] their drugs, I’d have never been able to do nothing. At least I could stay in my house, paint and communicate. So my therapy is paint – don’t take the heavy drugs.”
Mann’s work has been exhibited at a number of non-profit venues, including the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, where he was featured in the Museum’s traveling exhibition “Trauma and Metamorphosis” (ca 2004). Another Bad Day (ca ‘92), his austere Vietnam-era painting of a hand emerging from the ground holding six dog tags, provides a timeless logo for the contemporary project A Touching Tribute– The Long War Memorial honoring post-911 military casualties.
“Rice Patty Lady will Never Leave My Mind”
The paintings throughout Mann’s home are often rehung – like a churning installation of his stream-of-consciousness, but Rice Paddy Lady (2004) [slide 7], an early (single) colour painting is always placed on prominent display in the living room. After working only in black and white for ten years, “maybe I was looking for a different emotion.” While searching a rice paddy after the aerial bombardment of a Vietnamese village:
“I looked down [and saw] this young lady lying in the water with blood oozing out…she was sliced and diced, and it was the most horrifying thing I [had] ever seen in my life.” “Ducks [were] flying off the pond and the smell of blood [was] everywhere…Rice Patty Lady will never leave my mind. I see her everyday of my life.” “She had made a big dent in my head for awhile…I did carry it back in my mind, and there it is on the canvas now.”
Mann only paints when he feels an impulse – usually it comes from something that’s on his mind, but sometimes he doesn’t understand the emotional source of a painting until the unplanned, abstracted shapes start to conjure-up personal associations and meanings: “paint on…when it makes you feel right, and when it don’t, don’t do it.” He believes the war-induced paintings have provided an emotional reprieve to “move forward,” and many later works have come from feelings of empathy: including Rosa Parks [slide 8] (her death in 2005 brought out regrets that he once held the prejudicial views of his upbringing), the victims of Hurricane Katrina [slide 9] and the Oklahoma City bombing [slide 10], an opioid-addicted former wife [slide 11] & [slide 12], children with AIDS in Africa [slide 13], he and his six siblings as a cluster of angels [slide 14], and road-killed animals [slide 15] he’d driven by (as blossoming flowers).
Merging Himself into his Paintings
During the relative calm of recent years, Mann has painted infrequently, he’s mostly returned to a practice of re-photographing slide projections of his paintings.
In a series of (mostly lost) self-portrait photographs (ca early 2000’s), Mann projected paintings over his face and body, [slide16] & [slide 17] creating a painterly merger of his inner and outer selves: he stares out as if from the place in his mind that induced the all-encompassing painting. More recently he has projected slides of paintings onto other people: “I like the idea of shooting the art on…human skin because everybody…has impurities on them…somebody else gets to feel good about themselves because I shot my art on their skin.” Working alone using two projectors, he finds new layers of meaning in his work by projecting multiple slides of other paintings onto actual paintings [slide 18] & [slide 19] & [slide 20]: “it’s faster to put them together and shoot them like this than it is for me to try to paint every individual idea that’s in my mind…I can conglomerate them together and make the story easier for somebody else to understand.”
Ron Mann compares individual artworks to pages in the story of his life. Part would be missing if a page was ripped-out, and he hopes that his life’s story might remain whole:
“Even though I can’t write real good…I can do this here and I can still communicate with you…I’ll let you do the writing and and I’ll do the painting: we can take all this art and put it together…in a museum of some sort…maybe a crazy museum.” “Here’s what happened to [this] veteran. He painted his whole life…and now he’s offering this to you as a citizen. You can have my art and put it on display and we can all look at it and laugh…life was a bitch, but we do love it.”
- Art Environments - Midwest | Photos by Fred Scruton
- News & Events: Article on Ron Mann in The Flint Journal
- News & Events: Ron Mann Video at Outsider Fair
- News & Events: Ronald Mann featured in Raw Vision Magazine
- News & Events: The Art of Resistance: Veterans Respond Visually to War – Exhibition