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Raised in Cambridge, Steve Mumford got himself embedded with military forces in Iraq. Why in the world would a painter do that?

Artist Steve Mumford sits below his 2005 oil-on-canvas painting The Accused. He spent six months embedded with American troops in Iraq, where he sketched and painted scenes from civilian and military life.
Artist Steve Mumford sits below his 2005 oil-on-canvas painting The Accused. He spent six months embedded with American troops in Iraq, where he sketched and painted scenes from civilian and military life. (Globe Staff Photo / Lane Turner)

In artist Steve Mumford's studio, a fifth-floor walk-up in New York City's Lower East Side, there is a 12-foot papier-mache shark hanging from the ceiling. The tail is swishing, and there's a bloody gash below its gills. Mumford created the model as a sort of muse for an old series of oil paintings, yet all his work seems imbued with its wildness and motion, especially the work he has created as an eyewitness in Iraq.

Mumford is a storyteller, and, as far as he's concerned, stories should involve action and danger. "War is obviously one of the most dramatic narratives we have," says the 44-year-old artist, who grew up in Cambridge and now lives in Manhattan with his wife, artist Inka Essenhigh. "When you're in the war zone, you're living with a heightened appreciation. It's like being on a drug."

During 2003 and 2004, Mumford traveled on his own to occupied Iraq four times to chronicle military and civilian life. He made hundreds of sketches and kept a journal; entries were posted at Artnet.com, an online magazine. Now his writings and paintings have been collected in a book, Baghdad Journal, from Drawn and Quarterly publishers.

Inspired by Winslow Homer's depictions of the Civil War for Harper's Weekly, Mumford is reviving an almost-forgotten genre: combat art. Painters including John Singer Sargent and Max Beckmann rendered combat images from World War I. During World War II, there were numerous artists who actually worked on the battlefield; some were official artists for the military, others for magazines like Life. Since then, photography has pushed the tradition of combat paintings, sketches, and illustrations almost to the wayside. A Marine reservist named Michael Fay served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat artist, but Mumford is one of only a handful of independent artists to have worked in Iraq.

Though the onslaught of Iraqi war photographs can be numbing, Mumford's images are commanding. Given the subject matter, the techniques - pen and ink, and watercolors - are unexpected. The draftsmanship is energetic and elegant. And most striking, his vantage point is close-up and engaging.

Mainstream attention increased after Mumford's last trip to Iraq, from June to October of last year. Since his return, galleries and museums nationwide have featured his Iraq images, including P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, a museum in Queens that included some of Mumford's sketches in "Greater New York 2005," a high-profile show organized jointly with the Museum of Modern Art.

Talking with Mumford about his work, it's not hard to imagine him embedded with American forces. Wearing a faded T-shirt and khakis patched with duct tape, the artist looks like a boho GI Joe.

"I had a lot of sympathy for the American soldiers," says Mumford, who spent a total of six months embedded in Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, and other cities. "I thought most of them were doing a pretty good job; I never saw any Abu Ghraib stuff," he says.

Like the soldiers, Mumford often wore a helmet, goggles, earplugs, and a bulletproof flak jacket. While the soldiers stood guard or returned fire, Mumford sketched scenes quickly, often conflating 15 to 20 minutes of action into a single image.

"The drawing [would] accumulate characters," Mumford says. "It was like a stage where characters come and go. I made editorial decisions about who I wanted to include." If he was unable to complete a sketch, Mumford would snap a few digital shots and complete the work later. He is quick to admit that drawing is more subjective than photography. But paradoxically, by slowing down the process of capturing an image, Mumford achieves a depth and intimacy rarely seen in photographs of the conflict.

There are some art critics, like Jerry Saltz of The Village Voice, who dismiss Mumford's work as a tepid portrayal of war's extremity. Certainly, his work does not cry out against war's horrors in the tradition of Goya, but it can hardly be called propaganda, either. In images of soldiers sleeping, killing time, and keeping watch, Mumford conveys dreariness as much as hellfire or valor. And in roughly a third of his works in the book, Mumford depicts Iraqis - artists relaxing and talking at a garden teahouse, men playing backgammon on the street, a slouching teenager at a kebab shop. As photojournalists in Iraq felt the pressure to create dramatic images for their papers' front pages, Mumford was free to depict a full range of scenes, from battle zone to banal.

"There is no sensationalism in his work," says P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss. "It's very honest and true. He's not using the war to gain attention." She adds, "Feelings about the war are so intense, I think the book may be consumed emotionally versus artistically. But that's not to say he's not taken seriously."

With solo shows at Postmasters gallery in New York and his slot in the P.S. 1-MoMA group show, Mumford has broken into the world of high art. But his path there was long and circuitous. After graduating from The Cambridge School of Weston, Mumford headed to the University of California Santa Cruz. He spent a year as an anthropology major before ditching the books in favor of real-life trekking in Peru and Brazil. "I'd stumble on Indian tribes and get their permission to draw what I saw," he says.

Mumford landed back in Boston and attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he received an undergraduate art degree. One of Mumford's professors there, painter Henry Schwartz, made a lasting impression. "He wanted you to locate what really interested you. . . . [He believed] your only hope of making art was being truthful. Years later, those words are still resounding."

Rachel Strutt is a freelance writer in Somerville. E-mail her at rachelstrutt@yahoo.com.

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