JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND —
I seldom create things to please other people; I normally create things with the mindset that I’m making something that I would want to display in my own home,” said the man with many accolades and awarding-winning pieces adorning the walls around his drafting table.
Before retiring in 2010, then Master Sgt. Cody Vance was the last active-duty Air Force graphic illustrator; the career field being eliminated three years prior. Today, he continues serving the Air Force as a medical illustrator at the 59th Medical Wing, and the community with his award-winning and still-emerging artistic abilities.
Despite winning the Defense Department’s Graphic Artist of the Year for three consecutive years, the only person to accomplish such a feat since the DOD included the career field into its annual awards program in 2001, Vance believes he didn’t really come into his potential until his mid-forties.
“I was living in a vacuum, artistically. I’ve always been able to draw what I could see but creatives need other creatives around them to help grow, he said.”
The self-made artist and native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, started drawing at a young age. He recalled receiving art supplies every year for his birthday but he didn’t have anyone around him to help develop his craft.
“The grownups would ask if I was going to be an architect,” Vance laughingly explained. “Not knowing what that really meant, I would just agree and press on. You see cartoons on television growing up and think the sky is the limit. Then, as you get some maturity and experience under your belt, you realize art can be a very challenging way to make a living.”
Vance started considering a career in the military after being laid off from a job as a night shift maintenance worker at a department store.
“I wanted to see the world but I had no money. However, I knew I needed to go on my own, needed to see what was out there,” he said. “I had family members from other branches of the military but none had been in the Air Force, so I walked into the recruiter’s office one day and got the ball rolling.”
Vance wanted to come in as a graphic artist but there was a year and a half waiting list at the time, so he told the recruiter to just give him a job where he can go anywhere in the world.
A few months later, he was sporting a beret, carrying an M-16 and heading off to his first duty station at Buchel Air Base, Germany. Within two weeks of his arrival, reality hit as the U.S. launched airstrikes against Libya in retaliation to its sponsorship of terrorist activities against U.S. service members and citizens.
“It was 0530 on a morning scheduled for normal ABGD (Air Base Ground Defense) training. We were all gathered awaiting orders for the day when the training NCO walked in and said, “Good morning everyone and congratulations, the United States has just bombed Libya and we are now in threat condition Charlie, Vance recalled. “And then he said, ‘Go exchange your blanks for live ammo and get yourselves ready.’”
“Big reality check, I was no longer in the South Valley and this was no longer training. It was real,” he continued.
Vance spent the first 12 years of his career as a security police Airman and worked various positions from patrol to alarm monitor for nuclear weapons sites. During his second assignment, while stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, only a few miles from where he grew up, he was instrumental in setting up the first underground munitions storage system.
Outside of his normal day-to-day responsibilities, Vance painted murals on buildings for the security forces squadrons, some date back to the late 80s and are still present today.
“The best part of being an artist when working with cops is that it gets you time off from work to do special projects,” he said jokingly. “I really enjoyed being a cop, especially the camaraderie. Some of my best friends to this day are those made in the cops.”
In 1997, Vance finally got the opportunity to do what he has excelled at since he was a youngster. He retrained to be a graphic artist.
After three months of training at the Defense Information School, Fort Meade, Maryland, he was sent to Brooks Air Force Base, Texas, to be a medical illustrator.
Vance retired from active duty in 2010, but he still uses his skills as a government civilian to produce medical illustrations for the largest medical organization in the Department of the Defense — the 59th Medical Wing. Now, 33 pieces of his artwork have been donated to the Air Force Art program at the Pentagon.
In his spare time, Vance is involved with the Open the Door Veterans’ pilot program. The program brings together veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Art is such a healing thing,” Vance said. “I really enjoy being involved in things that have meaning and a positive impact in people’s lives.”
Vance, San Antonio program manager for the non-profit organization, and others like him, help veterans return to a civilian lifestyle by creating a support network that allows them to express themselves through art and aids the healing process.
“Many of the veterans who attend these therapeutic workshops have experienced wicked things in combat, so for years they have shut themselves off from the rest of the world,” said Vance. “It’s an amazing feeling seeing the veterans in a positive, non-threatening environment open up, laugh and interact as they learn new skills.”
Today, Vance himself continues learning new skills after taken up a new form of art that occupies the majority of his weekends.
“I started stone sculpting in 2008 and that has become my passion,” explained Vance. “It was completely different from the two-dimensional art I was used to.”
He elaborated on how when working with stone, it’s a subtractive process so every action must be strategic and methodical since once you make a cut you can’t take it back.
“It’s a whole different mindset; it was all my own design. It was my own everything,” said Vance. “Whenever I recreate a drawing or painting from a photograph, I can only claim it to certain point.”
Working with stone has given Vance the opportunity to really test his artistic abilities.
“Some sculptors want the perfectly cut block so they can draw on it,” he said. “I want the ones that have the twisted natural shape, the shape they come out of the ground with. It gets my creative wheels churning. So far, I’ve completed around 100 sculptures since starting eight years ago.”
Talking with Vance, one thing rings loudly, he’s humble about his ability and talent. When talking with others, he’s uncomfortable with praise or accolades and will usually deflect with a smile. “It keeps me out of trouble,” he says.
To see more of Vance’s work, visit his profile on the Air Force Art Collection website.