Each year a panel of judges selects a recipient for the George Gray Award for Artistic Excellence from a collection of artwork submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard Art Program. No stranger to the program or this award, Robert Selby won the award for his artwork depicting a deployment aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Tezanos in the Caribbean last year.
We asked Selby to give us a first-person perspective on his artwork and his inspiration.
I executed a number of assignments involving the U.S. Coast Guard as a newspaper illustrator in Providence, Rhode Island and found that the more I researched this remarkable service, the more my admiration grew. I was particularly moved by the motto of the U.S. Life Saving Service: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” Thus I was moved to “go out” when I received my first Coast Guard assignment in 2000.
Spurred by the millennium, the Department of Transportation commissioned paintings to illustrate a campaign for a state-of-the-art Coast Guard fleet. I was to ship out on an older deep-water asset to underscore the cutter’s age. With nearly 50 years of service, the Coast Guard Cutter Reliance was selected.
However, my task proved impossible. While I was aboard, the “perfect storm” rescue of a Gloucester fishing boat off George’s Bank highlighted the great work of the cutter and its crew, not inadequacy, so I had to search for a different solution. Ultimately, I juxtaposed the present and the future by painting the Reliance sailing from calm seas into a gathering storm. I was literally adding the final brush strokes when I heard the news on Sept. 11, 2001. The new Department of Homeland Security kept the painting but abandoned the campaign.
The painting of the Reliance did bring an exciting new assignment, however. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous rescue of the S.S. Pendleton, Coast Guard First District commissioned a painting and prints to present to Bernie Webber and his crew at a Boston ceremony. Preparation for the painting included the construction of a scale model of the scene in my studio. Despite careful measurements and consultation with the coxswain himself, I still found it difficult to make that tiny craft believable on 60-foot waves. I shall be eternally grateful for the opportunity to work with the epitome of those that “have to go out,” Bernie Webber.
My deployment to the Arctic in 2014 was certainly a bucket list check when COGAP secured a berth aboard the icebreaker Coast Guard Cutter Healy. To find the defining moment for that mission I fell back on my skills as a newspaper sketch artist. The technology staff helped me transmit two drawings daily – with notes. It seemed the perfect way to highlight the Coast Guard’s most valuable asset, its people.
As it happened, luck was with me on the final painting, too. I requested a second boat when the scientists asked to be taken off to collect samples from an iceberg. Scientists were reaching into the Arctic Sea with the Healy’s red hull as a backdrop captured the Coast Guard’s support for science perfectly.
COGAP’s interest in Sector San Juan found me aboard the Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutter Tezanos in May 2018. At 30 knots, sketching from life became a sporting event that tested all of my skills including working from memory. It was the Spanish culture that inspired me to paint a traditional triptych for this project. Side panels allowed me to highlight Coast Guard diversity with “iconic” full-length portraits – with the 15th century “El Moro” castle in the background. When the panels swing open, they mimic the hull of an FRC which is just where I painted the cutter’s small boat.
Narrative is a rich thread running through the history of art, and it is narrative – the story – of the extraordinary women and men that “have to go out” that I pursue as an artist painting for the U.S. Coast Guard.
The works of art — all donated by COGAP’s talented cadre of member artists — educate diverse audiences about the Coast Guard’s people and its work as it ensures the nation’s security at home and abroad and executes its 11 statutory missions. These missions include search and rescue, protection of marine life, illegal drug interdiction, aids to navigation, patrols, inspections and many more. COGAP artwork is exhibited at museums around the country and is displayed in the offices of members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and other senior government officials both here and abroad.
“This year marks the 38th anniversary of the Coast Guard Art Program. Since the program’s inception, artists have volunteered their time and talent to capture the vital contributions the U.S. Coast Guard makes to our nation in their wonderful artworks,” said Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz, who attended the event to accept 40 new pieces of art into the extensive collection and to present the George Gray Award to Selby.
The 2019 collection of 40 framed artworks by 30 member artists is on view from June 23 to July 6, 2019, at the Salmagundi Club, a New York art and cultural center and co-sponsor of COGAP since the program’s inception.
Following the exhibition at the Salmagundi Club, the 2019 collection will be displayed at Federal Hall National Memorial starting July 10 and will run through September 2019. The memorial is located at 26 Wall Street in New York City, diagonally across from the New York Stock Exchange.