Silhouetted against a pinkish-red background, several doves perch on a rifle held high by a soldier’s arm. This poignant image is just one of many in “WarFront/HomeFront, Through the Eyes of Our Military” on view through December 3 at Kent County Arts Council. After languishing for years, the former Town Arts Building is open again and hosting a show that vividly celebrates the healing power of art.
Whether the glowing red background connotes blood and fiery violence or the radiant pink blush of sunrise, hope and love is not clear, and the tension behind this riddle tells the terrible truth that while war is waged to bring peace, peace never lasts.
Created by Patrick Sargent, an Air Force veteran, at a workshop at Walter Reed National Military Center, “Birds over Peace” was screen-printed on paper made from worn-out scrubs from the hospital. Many of the show’s works were created in similar workshops, and many use handmade paper pulped from military uniforms by recovering soldiers in a powerful metaphor of transformation paralleling the soldiers’ transformative healing through making art.
“WarFront/HomeFront” is a heart-rending, provocative and soulfully beautiful exhibit drawn from the 600 works in the ART/ifacts Collection of The Arts & The Military, a grassroots organization that actively engages wounded veterans in the arts. They are joined by drawings and paintings of wounded soldiers from the Joe Bonham Project by artists from the Society of Illustrators and the International Society of War Artists.
Little boys love to play with toy soldiers, but the melted and mutilated toy soldiers scattered across Malachi Muncy’s “To Play Army” will never be played with again. The words scrawled across the paper pulp painting where they are imbedded blurt out a painful message that recurs throughout this show, “I Didn’t Know What It Meant To Play Army.”
Military service was romanticized when Muncy was growing up as an Army brat, and like many young people with limited prospects, whether white, black, Latino or Native American, he chose the military as a way to obtain training and education. After two deployments to Iraq and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, he has turned to art, as well as other therapies, for healing.
Art engages experience on many levels. The viscous feeling of clay between the fingers and the sweep of an arm brushing color across a piece of paper are strongly physical. The artworks these actions create stimulate both eyes and brain in a process that probes memory and belief, digesting experience and feeling in order to work toward understanding.
Chosen by Guest Curator Tara Tappert, Executive Director of The Arts & The Military, and KCAC Co-Executive Director John Schratwieser, the exhibit includes paintings, drawings, ceramics, poetry, found object art, and many handmade paper works created from old uniforms. It’s a show in which art has a double mission, serving both as a therapeutic process and as a compelling advocacy tool teaching visitors about the inward experiences of individuals in the military.
It’s in some of the Joe Bonham Project drawings that personal stories come to life with intensely affecting strength. Civilian illustrator Jeffery Fisher’s watercolor “A Fitful Sleep” is a powerful image of a wounded soldier, arm bandaged, sheets pulled into sweeping diagonals, grimacing face turned away. The sense of aloneness in his nightmarish physical and mental pain is palpable.
Through the process of creating, these wounded soldiers are able to discover ways to examine and express their wartime experiences in a safe and nourishing atmosphere. In one of the exhibit’s most inspired works, visitors may do the same. Across the gallery’s double windows hang several pairs of combat boots. These regulation boots have obviously been worn—despite the mandatory spit shine, they are scuffed and creased, each by an individual soldier. (No one wears a pair of boots in the same way as anyone else, as Van Gogh’s paintings attest.) Visitors are invited to write wishes, prayers or stories on paper provided and put them into the boots. Just a few days into the show, they were already brimming with handwritten notes which, at the end of the show, will be added to those collected from previous exhibits of the ART/ifacts Collection.
Interaction is crucial to the process of art, as it is to the process of healing. Wounded veterans worked together to pulp old uniforms into paper, to pose for drawings, and to organize workshops. It took great courage for them to open up through art to work on their own healing, and it takes courage to experience this show, but do it. You’ll be richer for the experience.
Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.