boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Ohrvel Carlson, 95; sketched horrors of war from trenches

"On the troop ship, en route to Omaha beach, I saw bodies floating in the water. The beach was littered with wreckage and there was confusion and traffic jams were inevitable as trucks and artillery rolled off the assault boats. I sat on a truck and did a few sketches with my artist's fountain pen."

So wrote Rockport artist Sven Ohrvel Carlson in ``Odyssey," a memoir of his service in the Army infantry during World War II.

Sketchbook and pen in hand, crouched in his bunk or at rest in bivouac, he captured battle scenes and the faces of soldiers during his 3 1/2 years in the 28th Infantry Division. A collection of 100 sketches was published in a book last year.

``No matter where I went, I did that which comes naturally to me, which meant `to draw,' " Mr. Carlson wrote on the title page of ``World War II Soldier-Artist Sketch Book."

Six months ago, the Library of Congress wrote to Mr. Carlson requesting his original sketchbooks for its archives, said Carol (Dickinson), Mr. Carlson's wife of 52 years, and he granted the request in his will. A copy of his book is also in the collection of The National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Besides battle scenes, his sketches show sites in France and England, service clubs, London pubs, and Army hospitals -- where Mr. Carlson had spent two months himself recovering from shrapnel wounds.

Mr. Carlson, who was also a sculptor, a professional jazz and classical violinist, a composer, and a poet, died Aug. 22 of prostate cancer at Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester. He was 95.

``Ohrvel was a Renaissance man," his wife said.

He was a ``phenomenal man" and an ``inspiration to us all," said Trudy Allen of Gloucester, former gallery director of the North Shore Art Association.

``Ohrvel's artwork was all-encompassing, different mediums, different types, representational and abstract," she said. ``He was right in the trenches when he did his sketchbooks."

Ann Fisk of Rockport, former director of the Rockport Art Association, described Mr. Carlson's sketchbook as ``a firsthand report through the eyes of an artist of the horrors of war."

``In his sketchbook, he was able to put into just a few lines the body language of individuals -- a soldier leaning at a bar, a medic attending a wounded man," she said. ``He got that feel in a simple line and every part of that line is right."

He was ``wonderful and imaginative," she said, ``especially when he painted to music."

Mr. Carlson often played music -- sometimes Mahler's compositions -- and interpreted on canvas how the music made him feel, she said. A semi-abstract of a cathedral interior was one result, she said.

Mr. Carlson, who preferred to be known by his middle name, was born in West Orange, N.J., where his father worked for the Thomas A. Edison factory.

``When I was 5," he wrote in his unpublished memoirs, ``dad bought a small watercolor set and one night at the kitchen table . . . he painted a small picture of trees along the side of a pond with light, shadow and reflections . . . on the water. To me, it was a miracle."

He also wrote of traveling the world as a young man, often on freighters, sometimes stowing away and becoming a deckhand, sketching and painting scenes and people to earn his keep.

Mr. Carlson graduated from West Orange High School the year the stock market crashed, and made his first sea journey as a deckhand to the Panama Canal.

``As a deckhand," he wrote, ``I chipped paint and repainted rusty areas of the ship. I also performed standing lookout on the bow of the ship at night and reporting any lights I saw and their position by yelling to the mate on the bridge."

After graduating from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, Mr. Carlson worked for the Edison plant, designing waffle irons, sandwich grills, and percolators, he said.

In the 1930s, when he was in his late teens, he returned to sea ``because there was no work for an inexperienced artist" he wrote, and traveled to the Philippines, the Mediterranean, the Far East, and Scandinavia.

From 1935 to 1939, he worked for the Depression-era Works Project Administration, doing murals on public buildings, and he studied at the Art Students League of New York.

He joined the Army in 1942 and marched in the liberation of Paris parade down the Champs-Elysees in 1944.

Back home from the war, Mr. Carlson set up a studio and started teaching at colleges and privately. Around this time, he met his future wife, who was one of his students. His work appeared in various magazines, she said, and for several summers he ran an art school in Lake Placid, N.Y.

In 1967, he moved his family to Rockport, where he taught, exhibited widely, and played violin with the Cape Ann Symphony and with jazz musicians.

He continued to paint and play his violin and walked six blocks every day -- even on crutches -- until recently, his wife said.

And his interest in community and world affairs, often expressed in letters to the editor of newspapers, was unabated.

One of his letters appeared in The Gloucester Times the day after his death. ``Monica Lewinsky, with Clinton's participation, put Bush in the White House. God is tired of blessing us," it says.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Carlson leaves a daughter, Laurie of Rockport; a son, Scott of Sedona, Ariz., and two grandchildren.

Services have been held.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives