Chapter 3: The Army Exhibit Unit

By Gaylen Solomon Corbett

In 1969, Solomon found employment at an engineering firm and was just beginning his married life with Georgia when he received his draft card. The U.S. was at war in Vietnam and many of his friends had already been sent overseas. His younger brother Sammy was serving in the Navy. After basic training, Solomon was fortunate enough to be assigned to the U.S. Army Exhibit Unit located in Washington D.C. instead of being sent to Vietnam. He and Georgia packed up and moved east to Alexandria, Virginia, seven miles south of D.C.

The Exhibit Unit was a soldier-civilian team carefully selected for their education and skills. “The mission of this unit of soldier-craftsmen was to present to the American public exhibits that were viewed by millions,” reports the Reboli Center for Art and History. Solomon’s background in industrial design and illustration would be utilized by the Army for the next two years. Fellow serviceman Michael Jacques was a classically trained fine art painter, and would become a lifelong friend. He and Solomon both knew that their talents had literally saved their lives. Jacques had originally been assigned to Westpoint to learn how to create aerial maps from a helicopter. When he was reassigned and arrived in D.C., he got down on his hands and knees and kissed the ground, relieved that he would not be dangling out of a helicopter over Vietnam as originally planned. The other men in the unit shared his elation. They were not necessarily happy about having been drafted, but were thankful to be in the States.

The Army put their skills and artistic talents to work on various tasks ranging from framing medals of honor for presentation, to designing a traveling educational exhibit for the country’s missile defense program. When not engaged in assignments, the men entertained themselves by pulling pranks on each other and their superiors. The Colonel in charge of their unit did not have an art background and would often become the butt of their jokes.

One of the unspoken rules in the Exhibit Unit was to always look busy. Everyone had a side project hidden in his drafting table, a piece of fine art that he was working on for personal enjoyment. Whenever Solomon got caught working a side project by the Colonel, he would make up a government purpose for it using big words, which the Colonel would pretend to understand. The servicemen got a laugh when they would overhear the Colonel using the made-up terms to his superiors as they toured the Unit.

As time passed, the men got more serious about their side projects. Michael Jacques decided to participate in a weekend outdoor art show in Alexandria. The other men scoffed, saying the art down there was “hokey.” Jacques soon found vindication after selling $1,100 worth of prints to a buyer from the Smithsonian. The woman purchased several prints at the show, and more at a follow-up appointment, plus provided Jacques with an introduction to other print buyers. Solomon and a few other men from the Unit, including watercolorist Joseph Reboli, joined in the outdoor shows. Though some days were long with little sales, Solomon enjoyed the experience and began to realize that this was a direction he may want to pursue.

He reached out to Jacques, saying that he knew enough about illustration and wanted to learn more about fine art. Jacques shared his knowledge of a variety of techniques and recalls that Solomon was an exceptionally fast learner. “Within a few tries, he would have it down,” say Jacques.

The Exhibit Unit was well stocked with all kinds of art supplies. As the men got more interested in their side projects, they found themselves in need of materials to frame their works for the outdoor shows. With an endless supply of matboard at their
disposal, stray pieces were frequently “liberated” for home use. Solomon got greedy and decided to bring home a whole stack of matboard. He carefully modified his uniform trench coat, sewing clips inside the shoulders so that the board could be clipped into the back of the coat and go undetected as he walked out of the building. Jacques recalls that Solomon looked like a “small square box” with the stack of board in his coat. His extremely straight posture caught the eye of the Colonel, who reclaimed the matboard and admonished the cadet.

Any surplus art supplies acquired from the Exhibit Unit were put to good use. The artwork Solomon created with them was exhibited at the outdoor shows, which provided valuable experience and some extra income. A few commissions came from contacts he met, including a series of 15 prints for Reader’s Digest. This gave Solomon a glimpse of what he could do with his talent.

In the fall of 1970, Jacques announced that he had been granted early release in order to resume his master’s studies, which were interrupted by the draft. Solomon was scheduled to be discharged from service in the spring of 1971, but he couldn’t wait that long. He had his sights set on enrolling in the Masters program at Art Center and was eager to get out of the Army as soon as possible. The Colonel soon received a telegram stating that Solomon had been granted a full scholarship to Art Center and had to report to the school by the first week in January. In November of 1970, his request for early release was granted. On December 21st, he and Georgia packed the station wagon to the roof and drove westward, back home to Los Angeles.

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