“When I met my wife Jennifer in 2011, I might’ve been trying to impress her,” Jay McChord admitted. “I was talking about my military artwork and this book that I had published full of veterans’ stories, and she immediately said, ‘oh I have an amazing picture and story for you.’
McChord, the former Lexington Council Member, was beginning the story of the journey of an eye-catching sketch among his portfolio of military drawings.
“Jennifer showed me a very small picture from 1944 of her grandparents on their wedding day in Western Kentucky. He’s in uniform and they’re next to this Western Kentucky signpost, kissing.”
As the story goes, according to McChord, following a brief honeymoon with his bride Dale at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Army machine-gunner Kenneth Johnson was sent to the front lines of the horrific German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. Some 75,000 Americans lost their lives on the frigid battlefields of Belgium and Luxembourg. Miraculously, Kenneth Johnson survived what can only be described as hell-on-earth to return to Dale and their home in Providence, Kentucky and a job as an underground coal miner.
Kenneth and Dale Johnson remained together for the next 47 years, raising three children and five grandchildren — Jennifer among them.
In December of 1991, Dale Johnson passed away.
The photo of her grandparents celebrating their marriage would have been destroyed had Jennifer not acted quickly, secretly, while visiting her grieving grandfather. “Jennifer was with her grandfather at his house, going through pictures, as you do before a funeral,” McChord recalled. “And she found this sack of old pictures and letters, obviously from the war. The image that came to be known as The Wedding Kiss happened to be on top. Jennifer asked her grandfather about it and he shared the story behind the photograph. But then he insisted that she return it to the bag. When he wasn’t looking, she instead slipped the picture into her hip pocket because she thought it was a cool picture of her grandparents.”
Two days after Dale Johnson’s funeral, honoring a promise they had made to each other, Kenneth burned that sack full of photos and love letters. “They had a pact that whoever survived the other one would burn those things because it was their private correspondence and they didn’t want their kids or grandkids seeing their love letters,” McChord explained, noting that like so many of his generation Kenneth Johnson was a man of his word. Life was all about duty and commitment — perhaps to a fault in rare moments such as this.
Jennifer framed the photograph and kept it in a curio cabinet where it remained for 20 years until she met Jay McChord, who couldn’t take his eyes off that photograph.
It reminded him of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt image of a sailor and nurse kissing in New York’s Times Square on August 14, 1945 — “VJ” (Victory over Japan) Day, the day news arrived that the world finally had emerged from the madness of war.
“But when you know the story behind the Times Square photo, that guy and that gal didn’t know each other; they’re not committed to each other. He just grabbed the first nurse he could find and kissed her. It’s just a moment of jubilation at the end of the war,” McChord noted. “But, I go back and look at Jennifer’s grandparents in this wedding day kiss and I think, ‘Wow! This is in the middle of the war. These are two people who are committed to one another for life, they don’t know if he’s coming back, yet they’re making that commitment right there.’”
The significance and poignancy captured in that photograph inspired McChord. He reached for pencil and sketch pad. This was the result …
In 2014, while in Washington, D.C. on business, McChord met with a friend on the capitol staff of Kentucky Congressman Andy Barr. Eric Landis, an Air Force veteran and one-time Pentagon tour guide, suggested a tour of the sprawling U.S. Defense Department headquarters complex across the Potomac river in Arlington, Virginia.
When tour day arrived, McChord discovered that the 17-miles of corridors within the Pentagon constitute a giant gallery of military art. Mentioning that he has created nearly a dozen pieces of military art and wished that at least one of them could hang in the Pentagon, McChord wondered aloud how that might happen.
Landis went to work on behalf of his friend, looking into the procedure and process for getting art approved for Pentagon display. “We submitted my body of work with the proper documents, and then we heard nothing for months and months,” McChord recalled of the frustration of waiting and wondering. “Eric called me one day and said he had not gotten a response. But a week later he called me back and said ‘well, I guess I spoke too soon. They called and they have accepted one of your pieces, the one of Jennifer’s grandparents, that wedding day kiss picture.’ I thought, wow, of all the ones they could’ve picked, how cool is that?”
In a statement announcing the Pentagon installation of Wedding Day Kiss and explaining its significance, the McChords contrasted the image with the famous Times Square Kiss photo. “The Johnson’s equally iconic, Wedding Day Kiss, on the other hand, was between two people who committed their lives to each other, in the middle of America … in the middle of the War. Not a celebration for the end of the conflict, but rather, a celebration in the midst of the conflict. Not with an assurance of better days ahead, but rather with no guarantee of any days ahead. Not in the middle of the world’s most famous intersection, but rather in the middle of a field at an intersection known only by numbers. Not witnessed by hundreds of unconnected revelers, but witnessed only by the closest of family and friends. The Wedding Day Kiss image celebrates more than momentary joy and inhibition. It is a testament to marriage, commitment, sacrifice, honor, dignity and most importantly, love.”
A replica of the original drawing was produced and now hangs among some 15,000 works — images conveying the range of human emotions from horror to tenderness — on permanent display in the Pentagon gallery. Beneath the framed sketch is a plaque bearing the “Wedding Kiss” story and a copy of the original photograph positioned side-by-side with the “Times Square” photo of the kissing sailor and nurse.
McChord says that the Pentagon Curator appreciated the fact that this piece “spoke to the power of the family, family commitment and those spouses who send their loved ones off to fight and don’t know if they’ll come back.”
About Jay McChord’s venture into military art
McChord’s final piece as a student before graduating from UK in 1991 was a drawing of group of US soldiers in Vietnam.
“The picture is very telling. It’s not a combat picture, at all. They’re just sitting around, in a moment between moving from one place to the next.”
Six years later, while in Kinkos making a copy of the sketch, McChord ran into his former adviser, UK art professor Arturo Sandoval. Sandoval asked to see the sketch and was surprised to find that his former student enjoyed military art. He told McChord that he had real talent and suggested that there might be a lot of interest among veterans and their families in transforming old war photos into drawings.
“What started to happen was people started seeing my work and saying ‘hey I have this special picture of my dad … or of me.’”
Over lunch in downtown Lexington, McChord told me about one of them:
Jay McChord can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org