Gunner works art into Army duties
July 14, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. -- It's been said the pen is mightier than the sword, but that "weapon" is only one kept sharp and ready in this artistic artilleryman's arsenal.
Sgt. Joe Erk also knows a thing or two about working on a bigger canvas: he is a Multiple Launch Rocket System gunner with A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 4th Field Artillery. Working on a weapons system that can paint a landscape with up to 12 rockets in rapid succession, he can turn a tranquil still life into irregular modern art.
His flair for visual expression began in third grade when he began drawing dinosaurs. He also created his own comic books with one featuring mice soldiers who fought off the bad guy cat and rescued a princess.
"My mom looked at my art and encouraged me to take classes to refine my talents," said Erk.
Following that plan, his days revolved around regular academics and shifted to evening art classes where he developed his craft in pottery, drawing, painting and photography. After high school, Erk enrolled at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. While there, he worked his comic book characters into a line of T-shirts, coffee mugs and other memorabilia to satisfy a class project, and though he took classes for about 18 months, he preferred to create art as a hobby instead of being restricted to tight schedules or satisfying an assignment.
Following the lead of his warrior mice, Erk enlisted in the Army where his thoughts about art diminished to something to consider for retirement. Even now most of his works stand against a wall at his home like a bunch of folding chairs. Well, except for some black and white, and colored pencil drawings of young pop star Avril Lavigne that decorate walls in his art room. Fortunately the 26-year-old sergeant has an understanding wife whose eyes sparkle and smile lights up when she talks of her husband's artistic side.
"I'm not concerned about it -- Joe has liked Avril forever, I think it's kinda cute," said Alex, who appeared to have some artistic skills as well with home decor and wall paint colors in their home. "He's really talented, and I like to look at his artwork and the new things he's working on; I think he was made to be an artist."
For the foreseeable future though, Erk is an MLRS crew member. Where his artistry first became apparent is unclear, but perhaps his colorful sketches of Lavigne on notebooks he carries to work attracted some attention. Whatever shed light on his sketching skills, Erk's work is featured throughout the 2nd-4th FA building. Battalion leadership first enlisted his talents to update two prominent unit logos. The first is called Deep Attack, a unit patch-type emblem, and appears in front of the battalion headquarters area as markers for VIP parking, a rocket static display and other surfaces throughout the building. The other logo, the Outlaws, used to be a rather simplistic skull, something Erk said resembled the work of a third-grader.
He updated the now fierce looking Outlaw to give it a more contemporary look.
"The previous version was bland and unemotional," he said. "I emphasized line art around its cheeks, eyes and mouth and deep set red eyes to give it an angry, I'm ready to get-the-job-done look."
The idea behind the skull formulated somewhere within the gray matter of Erk's own noggin. Rather than working on mathematical formulas to enlarge a snapshot into 2-by-3 foot wall art, he drew straight from what his mind's eye saw resizing the skeletal sentinel that fills the wall next to his commander's office.
"I start with the eyes, for some reason if I can make them the right size, the rest goes easy," he said.
The ghoulish soldier began as a near invisible outline as Erk used a pencil to sketch the basics on the wall. From there he switched to felt tip pen to outline various features. Once the ink dried, he concluded with acrylic paint employing various brush strokes to create the detail and emotion he envisioned.
That work drew interest throughout the battalion as he helped another battery change from their previous logo, the Renegades, to a "300" looking logo of a Spartan's helmet and cape.
Erk's design replaced a computer generated image that was stiff and dull to put it mildly.
"I looked at a picture of a Spartan warrior, and it had a lot of ornamentation on his armor," he said. "Because they needed a logo for many different uses, I simplified my design and reduced the decorative touches.
"I'm glad I did it, because it may be around for a long time. I'm pretty proud of it," he said.
Erk's artistry is featured on MLRS pod covers. He said the discs burst off the launcher when a rocket is fired and that most are damaged either by the rocket blast or when the disc hits the ground. However, the ones that do survive intact provide a circular surface that Erk was "commissioned" to transform for a gift to his departing battery commander. He also drew a legacy poster that includes data from wars 2nd-4th FA batteries have been involved in. Reprints of that image now adorn offices for the commander, the sergeant major and several senior noncommissioned officers.
Serving in an army that creates resourceful, adaptable leaders, this young artist relies either on assistance from his wife or the labels on paints or pencils to help him select the right color -- Erk is color blind. He said most his paintings use bright, vibrant colors because those are easier for him to see. Darker colors such as his Army Combat Uniform, his Army "grays" are harder to distinguish.
Regardless, the Army has provided a way to work in his art, and in turn that talent has helped make him a better Soldier. Erk said the attention to detail needed to complete an art project translates to ensuring he's mission ready when duty calls. He's also learned to manage his time better planning out each day to work on either his art or Army responsibilities.
"When I enlisted, I never considered there'd be a need for my artistic skills in the service," he said. "But now, anytime someone wants something for the Army, I'm glad to do it because I get to draw."