Modern art lovers will instantly recognize the two Jasper Johns motifs, the American flag and the target, which he included separately in many works. I first sketched this painting in my art journal on February 28, 2015. For the previous two or three years I had been occasionally sketching and painting targets for use in my illustration work. It was while studying books on Jasper Johns that I thought about combining the two as an editorial piece on America being the target of terrorism. As I was painting I decided to subtlety add in the cross to tie in the Christian element in relation to the war on Christianity and also open up the painting to other non-terrorism interpretations.
Painting a flag turned out to be not as straightforward as I initially thought. To begin with, there are multiple sizes, or aspect ratios, of the American flag. I settled on the more official, wide format and ordered canvas stretchers measuring 32″ x 60″.
Born in the U.S.A. was painted entirely with palette knifes and wire brushes. Stretching, preparing, and painting the canvas took only one month, by far a record for me for a painting of this size, or at least I thought I was done. About this time I realized I had sketched the stars wrong. I had always worked with the canvas while it was laying down flat, which is typical for me, but in doing so I had worked from the top side and accidentally drawn all of the stars upside down! I was quite displeased with myself. I also worried that the crazies in America would not only call me a terrorist but a satanic one! The truth is an upside down star doesn’t really have any satanic connotation as it is a pentagon and not a hexagon, but of course over-reactionary people are not logical thinkers to begin with.
A little internet research showed that the design mistake turned up quite often. I certainly wasn’t the first. In relation to creating artwork, mistakes are just part of the process. All of my work begins with some initial idea and evolves along the way. I decided to work with it and began to repaint most of the stars from the top down while leaving the bottom ones untouched. I also painted the top background a darker blue that fades to the bottom. As you look from the top to the bottom the stars appear to turn as they’re falling, or transitioning, depending on your view.
Long after the paint was dry I was still trying to title the painting. When I thought of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album one night the title instantly fit. I was nine years old and an avid pop and rock music fan when that album was released. There are political and other similarities to the song and to the theme of that album, but for me the Born in the U.S.A. title by itself is a fitting name for this painting. The Munich Massacre was in 1972, three years before I was born. The first Gulf War was when I was in high school. The 9/11 attacks occurred when I was 26, and the ensuing wars still continue to 2015 as I write this. I have no expectation or reason to believe that it will change in my lifetime.
While terrorism is obviously not an America-only problem, all Americans of my generation and generations since have been born into an America marked by terrorism as likely will be, unfortunately, several generations to follow.
— Terry Smith, September 15, 2015