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StoriesSgt. Elize McKelvey ’12, Art & Design

Martial art: Alumna enlists illustration training in military role

Art school graduate Elize McKelvey finds her niche as Marine Corps combat artist.

Sgt. Elize McKeley painting a mural

Sgt. Elize McKelvey ’12 was neither a typical art school graduate nor a typical Marine Corps enlistee when she boarded a plane to Parris Island the day after graduating from college.

Art, however, drew the illustration major turned combat artist into the military. McKelvey was a sophomore at the Art Institute of Boston (now Lesley College of Art and Design) when she first heard about the Marine Corps’ combat arts program during an art history class. Portraits of soldiers both on and off the frontlines flashed on her professor’s PowerPoint presentation, and in the brief 10 minutes he spent explaining the history of combat art, “I was hooked,” McKelvey says.

Full color drawing of a field with a downed helicopter in the back and smoke
During a deployment in Hawii, McKelvey witnessed the "hard landing" of a helicopter that resulted in the death of two Marines.

She went home and started researching. When she found combat artists’ names, she contacted them, learning everything she could.

It turns out, each branch of the military has sent soldiers and civilians to war with paper, pen, pencil and paint to tell the story of every major conflict since World War I.

The Marines have had the most robust combat arts program, but when McElvey decided to enlist, the program had only partial funding. Even so, she wanted to be part of it.

While finishing her degree and crossing the Charles River to be part of the Lesley cross country team (something unusual for art students at the time), McKelvey prepared to enter the Marine Corps.

"Our mission is basically: Go to war, do art."
Sgt. Elize McKelvey ’12, Marine Corps Combat Artist

She considered entering through an officer program but decided to enlist instead. Her father and grandfather both served in the military, the latter she discovered had been an artist and map plotter for the Department of Defense in Korea. But McKelvey felt some understanding would be missing in her art if she started her military arts career as an officer.

“If I was going to share the Marine Corps story, I was going to share it from the ground up.”

Starting from sketch

So, the day after graduating from Lesley in May 2012, a 22-year-old McKelvey reported for duty. During boot camp, she kept an ink stick (the Marine moniker for a pen) and a small sketchbook in her pocket so she could draw anytime. For a few months, the right-handed McKelvey even drew with her left hand after severing the tendons and nerves in her dominant pinky finger during a training exercise.

Sgt. Elize McKeley sketching in her camo uniform
McKelvey sketches on the field.

After boot camp, McKelvey was assigned a job in graphic design and print production. Deployments included California, Hawaii and security detail in Nairobi for President Barack Obama, where she took pictures and communicated with women in the combat zones who could not, for religious regions, speak directly with men.

“While I was out there, I had my sketchbook with me. That kickstarted my art career in the Marine Corps,” McKelvey explains. “After I came back from that deployment, it started tumbleweeding into where we are today.”

At the time, McKelvey received assignments through the combat arts program alongside her other duties. She worked on murals in Seattle, Nashville, Charlotte and Detroit among other projects. The program, as of 2019, is again fully funded with a studio at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Virginia, and one other Marine combat artist besides McKelvey.

Explaining the mission

Perhaps few people have heard of the combat arts program, but it’s easy to explain.

“Our mission is basically: Go to war, do art,” McKelvey tells people.

A sketch of a soldier on one knee with a gun
McKelvey always has a sketchbook handy to capture action on the field.

The next question, of course, is why it’s still relevant in an age of photography and video. That’s also an easy answer for the sergeant.

“You never want to limit how you share a story and how you storytell to an audience,” she says. A photo is a moment in time, but she says, “An art piece can take all those moments and put them into one painting.”

McKelvey also finds that troops prefer an artist sketching them in action, rather than poking a large camera in their face. They’re more likely to engage with the art as well.

“It makes them see things a little differently, and it makes them feel important.”

Behind the lines

Despite the program name, the primary focus of the program has never been solely combat-focused.

“There’s so much more that goes on behind the lines that people don’t see. We try to focus on that as much as anything else,” McKelvey explains.

Overhead photo of troops in an amphibious vehicle on the sea.
McKelvey captured this image of Marines departing the USS Essex (LHD 2) during a training exercise.

While she hasn’t been on a battlefront yet, McKelvey’s work portrays life and death, service and honor. During one mission, when several soldiers were killed in an Osprey aircraft crash in Hawaii, McKelvey was able to share with the victims’ families her sketches of the men during their last days. That privilege inspires her to keep pursuing the career she first discovered as an astonished sophomore at Lesley, and it’s made her more committed than ever.

“Being able to join the military and do something greater than myself but still get to do art (is) amazing,” she says.