Cultures often memorialize their dead in stone. Each year, millions visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C, or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. But memorials also take more intimate, ephemeral forms—a photograph on a mantelpiece or a bouquet of flowers along a roadside. Memorials fulfill a human need to process personal and collective grief by materializing loss. They serve as a physical reminder to the living: this happened, and we won’t forget.
Artist and Navy veteran JD Smith creates his own memorials on paper. Within the confined quarters of his art studio in Venice, California, Smith renders World War II battleships on sheets measuring up to twelve feet in length, as a personal tribute to American and Japanese sailors who lived and died on their decks.
Fittingly, Unforgotten is the name of his current art show on display at the USS Iowa, a retired battleship-turned-museum in San Pedro, California.
“I’m not thinking of a ship as an inanimate object. I’m thinking of it as a home. It’s their home. It’s where they lived,” Smith says, sitting at his drafting table. An American flag thrust into the pot of a succulent droops in front of the window. The studio isn’t much larger than a tool shed, and the interior is reminiscent of a ship’s sleeping quarters. Smith’s drafting table is wedged beneath a handmade bunk bed. Wall-to-wall shelves are packed with battered books on naval warfare, engineering, and astronomy. A lone light bulb illuminates the scramble of sketches, blueprints, pens, pencils, and his latest drawing of the USS North Carolina partially unrolled across the table.
Many memorials are built on historically significant sites that foster empathy through direct experience. Visitors can walk the battlefield of Gettysburg and the beaches of Normandy. They can step into a cabin for the enslaved at the Whitney Plantation Museum or view the secret annex in Amsterdam where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis. But sometimes there is no physical location to visit.
Like the young men they carried, many battleships were lost to the waves. The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor is unique in that it was built directly on top of the sunken battleship.
“The Pacific is the largest ocean. It’s a lonely place to be buried,” Smith says, when asked why he chose to honor Navy crewmen with his drawings. “These sailors didn’t have grave markers. They just got coordinates. That’s how they did it during the war. Casualties were jettisoned.”
The scale of Smith’s renderings creates an immersive experience for the viewer. Both veterans and civilians are invited to revisit these forgotten spaces and remember the fallen, as well as the sacrifices of those who survived.
As he works, Smith reflects on the lives of the men who loaded the guns, ate in the mess halls, and slept in the bunks. The fabrication of every drawing is, in itself, an act of memorialization.
Smith was born fifteen years after the conclusion of the Second World War and never saw combat during his own service. Even so, he’ll recount the history of every ship he resurrects as if he’s walked the ghostly labyrinth of its passageways countless times. He rolls up the sleeves of his plaid work shirt, revealing forearms dotted with faded tattoos—a blue anchor inked when he was in the Navy and the lettering “UFO.”
“It was my favorite band in high school,” he explains. He hasn’t lost his taste for metal, and the studio often vibrates with power chords and thunderous drum rolls. A sonic background of head thrasher music helps him focus.
Since he works in such a confined area, he often alternates between his studio and the driveway.
“I have to take the ships out and open them up on a big piece of wood to proportion them,” he chuckles. “I found that I can do it when it’s rolled up relatively well, but there’s nothing like seeing the whole thing. I’ll stand there and gawk at it myself.”
For Smith, battleships have been associated with loss and remembrance since childhood. Their stories are interwoven with his own family history.
“My grandfather was a hydrostatic welder during the war, so he’d repair a lot of the ships that came back with damage,” Smith says. “He’d put on the metal helmet and the canvas suit and do the jobs no one else wanted to do.” As a boy, Smith spent hours playing in his grandfather’s welding yard in Venice and accompanied him to contract jobs by the docks of San Pedro. Awestruck, he would watch cargo ships pull into the harbor stacked with multicolored containers that looked like Legos from a distance.
When he was in high school, Smith’s father, George O. Smith, asked him to find the final resting place of his cousin Edward Malone’s doomed ship, the USS Astoria. Edward was only twenty-five when the Astoria sunk off the coast of Savo Island in the South Pacific during the summer of 1942. Smith spent several years reading everything he could on the fate of the ship, but his father passed away before he could report that the shipwreck had been found.
Plumber and skilled laborer by day, historian and self-taught artist by night, Smith is armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of each ship. He’ll explain every piece of machinery, the class and type of ship (battleship, cruiser, destroyer), and how it was fabricated. The ability to remember and render the multitudinous parts of a battleship comes from direct experience. After graduating high school in 1978, he became a pipe fitter at seventeen, enlisted in the Navy in 1981, and worked as a boiler room technician on an amphibious assault ship.
“The Navy trains you to do your job, and it trains you in such a way that you don’t deviate. I drew the engine room for my test to get my boiler rating in the Navy, and twenty-five years later I could draw the same diagram. I remembered everything. Where every gear was, what parameter the pressures were. I can’t say that there’s anywhere else in my life that I learned something and had it so ingrained.”
Lighting a Marlboro, Smith swivels in the chair to survey the latest piece on his drafting table, a depiction of the USS North Carolina. The ships are drawn without any digital input, using drafting techniques such as radius perspective and 1/97 scale. A 728-foot-long ship will become a seven-foot, five-inch-long drawing, and every detail of the ship’s deck will be visualized on paper. It can take him over three hundred hours to complete a large-scale piece.
“With the North Carolina, I struggled with the smokestacks,” he says, pointing to the twin columns. “In the photos you can see that one of them is slightly higher than the other. I had to draw them five times.” The average viewer would never notice the subtle difference or have a historical reference point for comparison, but to Smith, even a minute error will be worked and reworked to honor the memory of the crew.
“I think it would be important to the crew that their ship was represented accurately. Even though there were lots of ships built of the same class and they looked identical from a distance, each ship is like a city. They might all look the same, as cities do from space, but they’re individuals in their own right.”
Drawing a ship means total immersion in its structure and story. Prior to creating a preliminary sketch, Smith will pore over historical references. Two of his primary sources for American and Japanese ships are the website Navsource Naval History and Nihon Kaigun, which contain a photographic history of the U.S. and Japanese Imperial Navy from their inception until today.
“Most of the images from WWII are from when the ships are in the repair yards,” he explains. “So I have photos of these ships being refitted with welding machines all over them. The photos they took are so crisp that I can zoom in and see the guy’s shoelaces.”
He’ll draw some of the ship’s parts separately and then collage them onto the main body of the piece. This allows Smith to obtain greater accuracy, and he feels the layered paper adds texture and depth. Opening a yellow folder, he reveals sheets of intricate renderings—rows and rows of guns, rangefinders, and cannons—which he’ll apply with the meticulous delicacy of a jeweler.
“These are the American guns, and these are the Japanese guns,” he says. “I draw them in nests. On American battleships, they’ll have them in rows. So, I drew two in a row, three in a row, and then at different angles. Some are head on or in profile depending on their placement.” He laughs, as if recognizing his fastidious dedication to his craft from an outsider’s perspective.
The way a particular part was fabricated can have great historical significance and must be taken into consideration while drafting the piece. When Smith drew the iconic Japanese battleship Musashi, he redid the deck multiple times until he had accurately depicted the angular indentation made by Japanese manufacturers to conserve steel.
In addition to archival references that help him understand the layout and mechanical particulars of each ship, specific historical events inform artistic decisions.
“As I’m drawing the ship, I’m trying to determine what’s the best angle to shadow it at. For example, should it be three in the afternoon, and should the ship be going north, or in another direction? When I drew the destroyer USS Killen, I had the shadow coming from sunrise because it was shelling Balikpapan, which means it would have been sitting in the water with its guns aimed west, and the sun coming up in the east.”
The actions of sailors on deck as they unfolded in real time are at the forefront of Smith’s mind as he crafts each ship. “See, this rangefinder here is a little bit off from this one,” he says. “I did that on purpose. That means the guys were practicing and left it a couple degrees from center.”
Careful consideration of a ship’s orientation in the water, the position of the sun in the sky, and movements of the men onboard recreates a singular moment in time. It’s as if the ship is in suspended animation—still intact and the future unwritten for its crew. Floating in the middle of the blank page, Smith’s mammoth ships appear oddly weightless. Waves are suggested using negative space, eroding the ship’s hull as if to signal its ephemerality. Every ship bears the mark of the maker. Their galvanized hulls contain a heartbeat. Sketch lines peek through colored pencil, an inky thumbprint smudges a corner, and buckling paper imbues the piece with handmade warmth.
Despite their immense size and destructive power, many of the era’s most intimidating battleships were ravaged by enemy aircraft and underwater torpedoes in a matter of minutes. A ship became an open target in the middle of the ocean with nowhere to hide.
Shouldering the weight of history, Smith’s artistic process is often an emotional one. When he first unrolled his preliminary sketch of the Japanese Musashi, he was struck by an overwhelming sense of loss. With the USS Astoria, he knew exactly what part of the ship his father’s cousin had lived in during the war, and rendering those sections was particularly painful. After he completed the USS Indianapolis, it was a drive past the field of headstones at the Los Angeles National Cemetery that did him in.
“When I feel I’ve captured the ship and its essence enough for the crew of that ship to say, ‘Okay, this representation is our ship,’ that’s when I get the tears. When it’s as accurate as possible, I feel like I’m doing them right.”
The final art object is not a dispassionate technical drawing or one-dimensional blueprint. It’s a commemoration.
In addition to honoring WWII veterans, Smith will dedicate a ship to significant people in his life he has known and lost. “The flags on each ship [I draw] has somebody’s name, whether it’s a veteran or an old girlfriend. Usually, I put the men’s names on the Japanese ships and the women’s names on the American ships. If someone I know who’s a veteran passed away while I’m drawing a ship, then automatically they’ll go on the ship, whether it’s Japanese or American.”
Enshrining the memory of Navy veterans transcends cause or country for Smith.
“I draw the ships without any bias. The Japanese’s naval doctrine was almost exactly the same as the American and English naval doctrine. The Japanese [casualties] were more numerous, almost every time. Death is pretty final. We’re all the same in that sense. We’re all human.”
Onboard the USS Iowa, Smith scurries down ladders and strides through passageways, leading the way to the Alfa Romeo Tango gallery. The space was constructed entirely by volunteers, most of them local veterans, and is curated by Los Angeles-based sculptor and educator Ben Jackel. Unforgotten is Smith’s first official gallery show and features five of the fifteen large ships he’s drawn thus far.
“JD lives and breathes the ships’ details,” Jackel says, standing inside the gallery space. “His draftsmanship, the way he delineates the volume to optically work, the collage elements he adds using traditional drafting techniques—they’re stunning objects. He’s also our first Navy veteran that we’re showing in the gallery here, which is particularly significant. The whole point of this space was to bring the art world of L.A. and the veterans world together, and Smith is representative of that.”
Jackel also says Smith’s work aligns with the message of “reconciliation instead of battle” that the Iowa, as an educational resource center, seeks to promote. He feels that a historical site like the Iowa can foster dialogue and empathy between veterans from both sides as well as civilians who were not directly impacted. “We’re all proud Americans here, but none of us like war,” he states.
Over the years, Smith has met a number of World War II veterans, but many are hesitant to talk. Smith understands their reluctance based on accounts he’s read and his own experience assisting at the site of a military plane crash.
One encounter with a WWII veteran stands out to Smith. While working a maintenance job for an elderly gentleman, Smith shared that he was creating a panoramic drawing of WWII battleships stationed at the Ulithi atoll in the Western Pacific Ocean. The veteran brought out a leather notebook bound with rubber bands the size of his palm. It was his flight log from when he first became a Navy flyer in WWII all the way through Vietnam.
“It was emotional reading it, because it was all written in the ink from that day, when the ship got hit by a kamikaze and some of his friends had died,” Smith says with a slight tremor in his jaw. “He would write the time down when he took off and when he landed, any damage he incurred, bullet holes. Everything I was reading, his hand wrote at the actual time it happened. There were different colored inks, and some of it was in pencil,” Smith recounts with a note of incredulity in his voice, as if marveling at the power of pen and ink to record the tenuousness of human existence.
“One hell of a life, and to come out of it alive,” Smith sighs, shaking his head.
On the last day of the maintenance job, Smith brought his drawing and asked the man if the ships looked the way he remembered. “I’d say so,” the man said as he stared intently at the drawing. Even though the piece was incomplete, Smith decided on the spot to give it to him. The man didn’t offer up any stories about the war or his experience stationed near Ulithi, but he traced the outline of the drawing with his finger, as if he were walking through the ship in his mind.
Isabel Spiegel is a media intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a freelance writer. She believes in the power of personal stories to reveal how our commonalities outweigh our differences. Smith is the first veteran she has interviewed associated with the Battleship USS Iowa Museum. She plans to conduct oral history interviews with elderly Navy veterans of WWII who are part of the veteran community in the Los Angeles area.