Coast Guard artist Chris Demarest has serious talent and has used his skills to share the service and sacrifice of servicemembers with countless Americans. With WWII disappearing from memory into history, he’s using the epic conflict to get one last look at the Greatest Generation and their contributions to freedom. Working at Arlington National Cemetery, Demarest has painted more than 60 portraits that now hang in honor of veterans’ contributions to the war effort. Compass interviewed him to learn more about this project and the artist himself.
Coast Guard Compass: What got you interested in art?
Chris Demarest: As a child, I’d always loved to draw, focusing on sports, athletes and excitement. Art was a way to express the inner me who wanted to be the hero, be it in football, baseball, a cowboy out west or skiing to a win. Both of my parents were artistic so that’s where the talent came from. My mother once worked in the Walt Disney studio.
Compass: Are you self-trained as an artist?
Demarest: In college I studied art, [University of Massachusetts], getting a degree in painting and printmaking. In a circuitous route, I went from graduate to house painter to cartoonist to authoring and illustrating children’s books for almost three decades.
Compass: What got you started with this current WWII project?
Demarest: “Serendipity” in a word. I happened to see a photo of the father of a new friend: WWII pilot standing on the wheel of his P-47 Thunderbolt. His dad had such a cocky look (age 19) that that image stuck with me. In a month I knew I had to paint it. Reaction to that painting and realizing that this generation is rapidly disappearing made me realize it was time to honor them. My father was a C-47 pilot (flying the Hump) and is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The president and founder of the Women’s Memorial, Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught allowed me to pay tribute to both women and men so coming up on two years this May, a collection of over sixty portraits hang.
Compass: What inspired you to work with the Coast Guard to begin with?
Demarest: In 2000 I published what was my first of many adventure books. That was based on my experiences as a volunteer firefighter. Two more fire-related books followed. When my editor said: “What can you do with water?” I thought of the book “The Perfect Storm” which I’d just read. I then thought “Coast Guard” as they were a big part of that storm. I soon contacted Air Station Cape Cod, I was living then in N.H., and within two months I started flying with them.
During that time, I found out about CGAP and submitted a few pieces of art from the book “MAYDAY! MAYDAY! A Coast Guard Rescue.”
Compass: Do you have a favorite piece of Coast Guard Art that you’ve done?
Demarest: Good question. Believe it or not, one of the early ones was a food service specialist [aboard] the Barque Eagle ladling pasta sauce onto pizza dough. But when the Coast Guard Art Program sent me to the Persian Gulf to live aboard the patrol boats, that was the best experience. I loved living with the crews, talking to them, hearing their stories and seeing their world. It’s not enough for me to paint someone. I want to know what’s going on in the photo, in their heads. That said, a funny anecdote is when a crew started calling me “CG.” It had nothing to do with “Coast Guard.” I was “Crayola Guy” to them.
Compass: What projects are you planning for the future?
Demarest: Two ideas are germinating: one is taking the WWII exhibit on the road. I have lined up venues [in the Virginia area] and California so far. I’m also working on creating portraits of WWI veterans as the centennial of the start of the European campaign started in 1914.