Writing “The Battalion Artist” – What was Nat Thinking?

On June 21, 2012, Nat Bellantoni, age 91, told his daughter Nancy he wanted to write a book. “Well, you better hurry up!” Nancy said. Even now, even as he neared death, it was possible to joke with Nat. But he was serious. “I want a book about my paintings.” The eyes of father and daughter met. There was no question which paintings—they were the 20 paintings he had carefully saved from all those he completed while stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. “I want it to look like one of my sketchbooks—only bigger.” Nat clearly knew he did not have time, in this life, to complete the project he had envisioned. “Maybe Janice can write it, and you can design it,” he said. Nancy called me. I had known Nat for decades. He was a friend and colleague. I loved the guy. Nancy and I were longtime friends, too.

“What should I tell him?” she asked. There was no question in my mind. “Tell him we’ll do it,” I said. “Of course.”

Weeks later, when the two of us sat down with the pile of books, the hundreds of photos, the many file folders crammed with papers, the boxes of documents and memorabilia Nat had left us for reference—and with Nat’s sketchbooks and the paintings themselves—I realized the enormity of what I had promised to do.

“Nancy,” I said, “by any chance, did Nat tell you what he wanted to say about these paintings?” Of course, he had not. “He told me not to over-think it,” she said. We both laughed. Because of course over-thinking it was inevitable.

My first step was to understand the context in which this artwork had been created. So I spent more than a year reading and studying. I started with the books and documents Nat had left behind, then went on to read as much as I could about the Pacific War—especially the battles that took place on the islands where he had been stationed.

Only then did I sit down at my desk. I arranged the paintings in chronological order. I wrote about them one by one. It went like this: I would stare at the painting, then at the blank document on my computer screen. Minutes would go by. I would sit and ponder. What had prompted Nat to create this image? What was happening around him? What was he seeing? Thinking? More minutes would go by. Many minutes.

Images would swirl in my head. Handwritten letters on nearly transparent paper. Poems by and about Seabees far from home. Black-and-white photographs: Bulldozers. Trucks. Walls of dense vegetation. Ships. Docks. Lagoons. Men toiling. Japanese soldiers sprawled in death. Sailors standing in a makeshift chapel, their sweat-soaked backs to the camera. New Guinea islanders, nearly naked, serious and watchful. Rows of tents standing in water.

Once I began to type, the descriptive commentary seemed to write itself. I don’t know how or why. I don’t much believe in voices from the beyond. But the fact remains: each time I emailed one of these essays to Nancy, she would write back, “It’s perfect. How did you know what to say?”

“I don’t know,” I would reply. “I guess Nat must have told me.”