SSgt Elize McKelvey

2023 National Women’s History Month “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories”

“Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories” is not only the theme for National Women’s History Month but is also the Women Marines Association theme for March, Women’s History Month. Print, radio, TV, art, music, and social media are all platforms used to tell stories. The WMA continually encourages all of our members to tell their stories. These stories all add to our collective history. Throughout this month, WMA will present Women Marines who tell stories through their chosen platform and have received honors for their high achievements.

Article by Margaret Lazarus WMA National Director of Marketing and Communications

SSgt Elize McKelvey
USMC May 2012 – Oct 2020
Specialty Billet within Communications Strategy & Operations

“Everybody in the Marine Corps has a unique job in what it takes to win our Nation’s battles, and for me, it’s through art and illustration and being able to preserve the history of the Marine Corps for years to come,” stated SSgt Elize McKelvey.

Artist, animator, and illustrator McKelvey has told the Marine story using the artist’s brush and pencil and through digital illustration. As part of the Combat Artist Program at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia, McKelvey went into the Middle East, where she could sketch Marines in action providing illustrations for the Museum and publications like the Marine Times. It also gave the Marines sketched a genuine feeling that they were part of history. In addition, people could now see what they were doing.
From drawing illustrations of combat Marines to creating a digital portrait of the Marine Corps Commandant for the Pentagon is a talent shared by less than ten women Marines in the Combat Artist
Program compared to over 250 male Marines. As far as feeling any pressure to be more qualified than her fellow male Marines, Elize admitted, “I’m sure I felt in some way that I had to prove myself more than my male counterparts, but I don’t think anyone in the program made me feel less. I’ve had some great art mentors come out of the Combat Art Program.”
Sketching Marines in the field, illustrating posters, and creating animation for combat Marine stories gave the SSgt confidence to be the first woman Marine and the first military artist to create a digital
portrait of the Marine Corps Commandant.
According to SSgt McKelvey, the pressure was never a factor when she was selected to create a digital portrait of the Marine Corps Commandant Neller. “I’m not sure I felt any specific pressure. I was
approaching it as trying to do my due diligence to keep this prestigious collection of portraits going. By the time I completed his portrait, I had been serving for six years, so any pressure I would feel being a female in a male-dominated arena was long past, and I’m sure I was just well accustomed to anything
like that at that point.”

A funding cut created the opportunity for McKelvey to prove that she could do a digital painting with the same techniques as a traditional portrait so it would fit into the collection. However, getting the Commandant to sit for the portrait was still an issue. “We did snap a photo of the CMC in our studio; he was a busy man and would have never agreed to sit for me,” admitted Elize. “I then took that reference and painted it later. Overall with the changes he wanted, it probably took around 50 hours to complete.” McKelvey continued, “I remember he didn’t seem too amused by getting his portrait done, but when it was revealed, we saw a rare smile from him!” The portrait is now displayed in the Pentagon’s Commandant Hallway.
Looking for a story to tell and then telling the story makes each artist unique. Elize never tries to tell one specific story. “I’m just trying my best to show my real self in my work and online to improve and inspire.” She adds, “I think it’s so easy to edit out the process of what it takes to be a good artist, and I want to be able to show the whole journey.” Like any job, improvement, and quality work don’t happen by just putting in the regular eight hours. McKelvey reminiscences about her earlier Marine days, “It’s not easy. I remember that even in the Marines, I was not only trying to get better at art, but I was also running marathons. People didn’t see that after long hours at work, I would get back and cram in a second run after unit PT and then draw late in the hours. So yes, I want to show the whole story of what it means to be someone pursuing art and all that entails.”

To tell the story, the artist often has to become very creative. The Marine Corps is a very structured organization. When asked if, being a Marine, were you given some latitude for those creative juices,
SSgt McKelvey replied, “I don’t think I ever changed who I was as a creative individual.” “I would say most of the time in my last few years; no one directed how I did things. I was generally given free rein to paint and animate how I saw fit, and I think my fellow Marines and bosses trusted me enough to do so.” All the creativity is of no help unless you see that person or idea to tell a story about. Elize admits, “I always look for those moments in time that might not seem so exciting until they are turned into art.”
She further explains, “I can also pick up on good compositions. I can take a photo reference and merge it to share the same story from a different angle. Or even compress time to share a series of events that took place and share them in one illustration.” Elize continued to explain that “illustrators feel they have this luxury over their photographic counterparts.” It enables the illustrator to take their work back to the studio and realize then that, “what I had captured and that scribble I made in 30 seconds actually would make a great composition,” expressed SSgt McKelvey. She further emphasized that “at the end of the day, it all comes down to just letting your gut take over. Don’t overthink what you are doing and just capture as much as possible because you never know if that moment will be important for future history.”
Several of SSgt McKelvey’s final assignments took her away from the Combat Artist Program. Providing artwork for two Medal of Honor recipients shows the importance and diversity of her talent. Creating animation for the story of Hershel Woody Williams on Iwo Jima and painting the combat events of GySgt Canley in Vietnam are among the more technical works. “I was also able to bring to life the story of Marines in bootcamp during 9/11 where there was no imagery to support their story,” adds McKelvey.

Although Elize has returned to civilian life, she will still be involved with the Combat Artist Program in future assignments. In the meantime, she is traveling in her SUV art studio/micro camper, “looking for new ways to share my art and running my art business while traveling/exploring,” revealed Elize. Her art business includes animation, magazine covers, and portrait drawings within her commercial work.

Additionally, McKelvey continues to do speaking events, art shows, and commissioned work. Two upcoming events are videos with the Smithsonian and the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Thanks to the Marine Corps Combat Artist Program for the use of their YouTube interview.

Find McKelvey on inkstickart on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok

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