Burton "Pat" Christenson's Perspective on Art

by Marcus Brotherton, from Men Who Lead Well
 

 

When 20-year-old Burton “Pat” Christenson went to war in 1942, he took with him something tough men aren’t often known to carry.

In addition to his rifle, grenades, and a trench knife, he carried a sketch pad.

 

Pat joined Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, the elite fighting unit eventually nicknamed the Band of Brothers. He wanted to do his duty and “get to the heart of the fighting,” he wrote in a letter home.

 

The young man emerged as the strongest of the strong. At Camp Toccoa, where the men trained, Pat held the camp physical fitness record. A remarkable feat, considering the strength, agility, and speed of the men he competed against.

 

A true renaissance man, Pat also emerged as the unofficial artist of the company. Pat had never studied art formally, but he loved to draw. The art helped him cope, said his son in an interview with me. It helped him process the unthinkable.

 

Pat parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. He fought in the mud and blood of Operation Market Garden, and in the hunger and snow of Bastogne. He filled page after page with detailed pencil sketches of the war.

 

Pat’s art is graphic, vivid. One sketch shows a soldier clutching his hand over his eye. The soldier’s been hit by shrapnel, and blood gushes around his hand and spills over his face. The soldier’s other eye is open in shock. He’s aware of the horror that’s happened to him.
 

“Only those who were wounded severely,” Pat scrawled underneath the sketch, “know the conflicting emotions and anxieties that race through a person’s brain, if one is still conscious after being hit.”
 

He drew pictures of the fighting in Belgium. One shows a man’s leg exploding, being hit from mortar fire, the picture a tribute to his friends Bill Guarnere and Joe Toye, who both lost legs in Bastogne.

Courtesy the Christenson family.
 
Pat was wounded more than once, but he lived through the war. He came home in 1945 and went on to lead a productive, community-minded life. He worked for the telephone company in Oakland, California, and opened a gym on the side. Famed body-builder Jack Lalane frequented Pat’s gym and became a friend.

 

Pet married and fathered three sons. He bought a big house with a huge yard and built an elaborate wooden decking around an exquisite ornamental garden, which he planted and shaped. Whenever the nightmares from the war became too much, he paced around his backyard sanctuary in the moonglow until he could sleep again.

 

Pat continued his artwork in various mediums. He built birdhouses and made intricate wood carvings that were sold in gift shops in San Francisco and Sausalito. He picked up pieces of cedar and pine in the Sierras and carved figurines. Each year he handcrafted Christmas cards and sent them to his war buddies.

 

He lived richly and lived well. His friends and community admired and respected him. Eventually he succumbed to lung cancer, and Pat died at home in 1999, his three sons near his side.

 

Pat Christenson’s story is remarkable in many ways, but what can’t be missed is the important place of art in this warrior’s life.

 

We men are often taught to bottle our feelings. Or we’re told early that art is only for girls.

 

But inside every man is a deep-seated need to engage in art.

 

I’ve noticed a change, fortunately, in how everyday men are viewing art. Manly art is making a big comeback. And I’m not talking about professional art. I’m talking about the art we do for ourselves.

 

Among my friends, I know:

 

·        An executive manager who sculpts industrial art in his garage with a welding torch.

 

·        A real estate agent who paints on the side. In his portfolio are images of backyard trails he’s wandered in his youth.

 

·        An I.T. consultant who photographs sunsets, cityscapes, and mountains in the snow.

 

·        A fireman who carves wooden boats.

 

Not all men go to war, but all men encounter challenges that require a processing work. The healthier we are, the more we learn to recognize and articulate our emotions. Art provides a vehicle for self-expression. We grab our experiences and press them through a medium that reacts.

 

If you’re searching for a way to process what you’re going through, you don’t need anybody’s permission to be an artist.

 

Every man is an artist—permission’s already granted. It’s ingrained in the legacy of men like Pat Christenson. Simply pull out a sketchpad, set up an easel, fire up a blowtorch, or grab a lump of clay.

 

What happens next is up to you.


Pat Christenson, self-portrait, courtesy the Christenson family.