SPC Cole LaRocque first dove into the realm of art as a child, when he would sit and draw pictures of planes. Now, as an Avenger crewmember for the North Dakota Army National Guard, SPC LaRocque’s life imitates his childhood art.
“I began drawing by tracing jet aircraft,” he explained. “Now, I look at jets to identify them [for the Army].”
Even before becoming a teenager, SPC LaRocque recognized his growing passion for art and became dedicated to perfecting his craft. Starting with drawing and eventually transitioning to painting, he spent years developing himself as an artist.
“I’ve always had an interest in making art,” said SPC LaRocque. “When I was very young, I could draw fairly well representationally [a form of art where the artist depicts objects, figures or scenes as seen by the naked eye]. It all started with drawing, and I slowly got better. I really immersed myself and took a greater interest in art when I was in high school.”
It was in high school when SPC LaRocque encountered an inspirational teacher, and eventually mentor, who introduced him to watercolors.
“It was love at first sight when it came to watercolors,” he said. “I felt an immediate connection to the material. It resonated with me.”
Watercolors is a form of painting that uses the technique of mixing paint with water to produce paler colors – resulting in a different effect than lightening colors by adding white paint. It is a very demanding style of art, where the thinner paint can reveal even the smallest error made on the canvas. In this form, white paint is not used at all; rather, the whites in the image are the canvas itself. Consequently, once a mistake is made, there is no removing it. SFC LaRocque said the thrill of the immediacy of watercolors is what attracted him to the art form.
“There is a certain liveliness to it that I enjoy,” he explained. “I really enjoy how I can add several different layers of color to a piece at once. I do enjoy working with other media, but I work mostly with watercolor.
“Sometimes I add markers or other nontraditional media into the mix just to try something new. There is no set rule that I must work with watercolor or oil or graphite. Some rules are there, but I think rules are meant to be broken when it comes to art.”
While studying art at North Dakota State University, SPC LaRocque had the opportunity to study overseas.
“Seeing some of the ancient Roman ruins and Tuscan ruins in Italy really etched into my heart my interest in art,” he said.
SPC LaRocque, a member of the North Dakota Army National Guard’s 1st battalion, 188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, first joined the Guard in 2002. He joined seeking an adventure that would open him to new experiences.
“When I first [joined], my favorite aspect was having the thrill of something new and seeing a different part of the world,” noted SPC LaRocque. “I wanted to go to Afghanistan and I was interested in what that experience was about. Needless to say, it was bittersweet.”
SPC LaRocque’s experiences in the Army National Guard are now significant motivators for his art. He has created numerous works based on the people and places he has encountered during his service. His paintings are now largely inspired by his overseas deployment to Afghanistan – more specifically by the multiple improvised explosive device (IED) attacks he encountered while there. He said one of his favorite pieces was inspired by an IED attack he experienced in 2006.
“Our truck ran over a pressure plate mine,” SPC LaRocque recalled. “It blew the left front half of our truck off – and I was the gunner.”
Flooded with a whirlwind of emotions after the explosion, SPC LaRocque used his art as a means of processing the event.
“[The painting] wasn’t an exact representation of what happened, but more of an emotional interpretation,” he explained. “I had feelings of intense rage. I didn’t know if I’d be alive in the next moment. Having that mystery and feeling of the unknown was very invigorating.”
SPC LaRocque went on to explain how translating his emotions through his artwork is an important, yet challenging, aspect of his work.
“Sometimes having that translation presents difficulty,” SPC LaRocque said. “Art requires a certain degree of emotional honesty, as well as skill. You can tell if something is [genuine] or not. When I’m not being honest to myself or my ideas, I feel like there is something missing.”
Over the past decade, it has become more common for Soldiers to use art as a way to process their experiences after returning from combat. Today, art therapy is widely seen as a viable alternative for Soldiers who do not benefit from traditional therapy. Always in search of new ways to support Soldiers and Veterans, the Department of Defense, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), developed a unique program based on using art therapy to help heal the emotional wounds of combat. The initiative, called Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, connects Soldiers, Veterans and their Family members with therapeutic art activities that are available in the service members’ local communities. These art therapy programs have been proven to lead to marked improvements in post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, anxiety and other invisible wounds.
Since SPC LaRocque’s relationship with art began before he joined the Guard, his military experiences have only heightened his artistic expression. His time in the Guard has also inspired him to study a new field of art – religious art. SPC LaRocque has recently employed this new artistic style to create works that reflect his spirituality.
“My combat experiences and proximity to death have had a huge impact on my art,” explained SPC LaRocque. “I could have been killed, so that made me think of how precious and temporary life is. In all of these [experiences], no matter how bitter they are, there’s a silver lining in that it refocuses your attention on what is important.”
SPC LaRocque is currently working on a painting inspired by his newfound perspective of life.
“The [piece] I’m working on now has more than 1,000 faces,” he said. “It requires skill and craftsmanship to be able to draw and then paint those faces. It can be challenging. My concern is showing something that speaks truth.”
His current artistic endeavor incorporates the detailed faces of celebrities, SPC LaRocque’s Family and fellow National Guard Soldiers with whom he has served.
“I’ve tried to make sense of the human condition,” SPC LaRocque explained. “It gave me the idea to paint people from all walks of life. I want to pay attention to the detail and subtlety of every face.”
In addition to acting as an inspiration to his artwork, SPC LaRocque commented that his Army National Guard Family has been an essential support system in his life.
“Through several trying times in my life, the National Guard has reached out and helped me. The people in my unit have been there for me – that’s one of the reasons I’m in the Guard,” he reflected.
SPC LaRocque’s artwork can be seen at Ecce Art Gallery in Fargo, North Dakota. While he does sell his art, he emphasized that his motives for producing art are not monetary.
He said, “The reason I make art is to [help] heal people.”
By Staff Writer Tatyana White-Jenkins