Ronald Mann: War Wounds - RAW VISION

Ronald Mann: War Wounds

First published: Spring 2019
Ronald Mann began to work through the effects of the Vietnam war when he started painting

“A child can paint better than that”, Ronald Mann’s ex-wife Debbie 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 40 years earlier, he’d been caught up in an altercation: “The judge told me, join the Army or go to jail.” Born in 1943, Mann served one year as an Army helicopter door gunner and ground soldier, returning from Vietnam with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder in 1968. Unable to cope with regular life, he quit a General Motors factory job, moved often, and struggled to stay employed. Rickie, his wife before Debbie, was an amateur painter. Seeing that the hobby brought her comfort during difficult times, Mann wondered if painting might also provide some relief for him. He began to paint on small canvases 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.”
 


Bird’s Eye View
, c. 1993, acrylic on canvas, 32 x 24 in. / 81 x 61 cm

Mann’s laid-back, pot-smoking, 1960s demeanor, his conversational style (“That’s beautiful, man, right on”), and his 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 20 years after he returned from war, painting became a self-therapeutic way of coping with persistent anxiety. Memories and emotions would manifest on the canvas surface – his inner-demons as stark black and white lines and shapes on solid black or white backgrounds. “I finally jumped into something that I could express myself a little bit. I called [my first painting] Heaven or Hell 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.” The inkblot became an inspiration for some of his early paintings, and it has “become a way for me to communicate again.” His work Bird’s Eye View suggests an omniscient-but-vacuous eye-in-the-sky 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 a while – that’s why I paint crazy, crazy art.” The walls of 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 50 years later, an early painting, Long Way Home (c. 1992), keeps Mann in the company of his first kill. Hung up high in the front room, the canvas depicts the skull of a Vietnamese soldier who had fired on the American gunship helicopter in which Mann was travelling. Weeks later, after seeing the soldier’s 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 enlivened eyes: “So that’s the reminder of war.” While surrounded by his work, Mann finds it reassuring to chill out, smoke some (medical) marijuana, and see through the cannabis haze that his paintings are still holding his emotions in check. He says about an official treatment programme: “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.”
 

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #101