CAF Artist Program at work in Ukraine

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Art is a powerful communication tool. It conveys emotion, gravitas, and tells a textured story about what’s happening in a way words or a photograph cannot.

For the Canadian Armed Forces deployed on operation, it has become a key communications vehicle to tell the story of Operation UNIFIER, Canada’s military training mission to Ukraine.

It is unmistakable when looking at the image that a Canadian soldier is deployed in Ukraine. He is side-by-side his Ukrainian counterpart; they are wet, tired, dirty and getting on with the task at hand. As the axiom goes, “they ain’t training if it ain’t raining”.

This sort of image is usually captured by a CAF imagery technician. This image is not a photograph, it is a sketch, and was done by Richard Johnson, who was in Ukraine as part of the Canadian Forces Artist Program (CFAP), while he worked, slept and lived alongside soldiers for more than a week.

Life in the military can be hectic, but it can also be filled with many moments of “hurry up and wait” which can turn into gold for an artist.

“I first embedded with the military back in 2003 when, after taking a couple of wrong turns, I ended up crossing the border of Iraq with the US Marine Corps on the first day of the invasion. I learned through that tumultuous journey, that the only way to gain the trust of servicemen and women, is to be patient, be yourself and most important, be self-sufficient,” said Mr. Johnson.


The CAF routinely invite journalists, photographer and videographers out to cover operations and exercises, but less frequently artists.

“The CFAP gives artists of all flavours the opportunity to come and hang out with Canadian Forces in the field,” said Mr. Johnson. “For some that will entail a bit of a mind flip into a life that they probably can’t really imagine, but for me now it feels a lot like coming home. I think the program is a fantastic opportunity for the military to shine a light on some of the great work it does through different mediums, and is also a great opportunity for any kind of artist who wants to test their skills under adverse conditions, or just diversify their portfolio. It is a win, win really.”

Although images and video of Canadian soldiers conducting operations around the world can be impactful on social media these images generally lack staying power, as the viewer is able to move onto the next story in rapid succession.

“People connect with the live rendering in a much different and more visceral way. There is something intimate and personal about a sketch when you know that it is seen through another person’s eyes and that you are looking at a period of time spent watching and studying. One of the most common responses I hear is that it made them (the viewer) lean in and want to know more. For me that is the key – making people care about things they didn’t even know they should care about.”

The impact on the viewer is undeniable. And sketches of CAF soldiers in Ukraine will have a lasting impact for generations of Canadians to view and ponder.

“I guess I consider myself first a foremost a historial documentarian … I just use a pen instead of a camera,” said Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson’s work while on Op UNIFIER, can be found on Twitter @newsillustrator

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