By Victoria Gaffney
Paper is a universal canvas for expression—to draw, to write, to create. The process of making paper is itself an ancient tradition. Today, members of the armed forces have begun to put their own twist on the practice of creating paper from cloth. For their starting material, they use something closer to home: their uniforms.
Combat Paper art began in 2007 with Drew Cameron in Burlington, Vermont, where he ground up his uniform and made it into paper. The art form, now a movement, is the focus of an event on April 3 at the Workhouse where service members and veterans will be adding their uniform-turned-paper to the exhibit “The Places We Have Been: Exploring the Internal and External Travels of Veterans and Service Members.” This week, they have been participating in a weeklong workshop at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir where they are creating their own paper from uniforms and using the paper as a platform for their stories.
The exhibit at the Workhouse already features compelling works of art by military artists. From SSG Jonathan Meadows’ “Letter from Home”—a scene rendered from recycled clay—to Maria Marte’s vivid depiction of a sandstorm (“Haboob”), the pieces range from the realistic to abstract and convey a variety of energies. Some are somber in their subtleties, while others create a powerful effect through vibrant colors.
The exhibit is part of the new Military and the Arts Initiative at the Workhouse and is a response to the 2013 government sequestration, which reduced a lot of funding for military arts programs. The Workhouse is collaborating with Fort Belvoir, the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission to help facilitate programs for veterans and service members.
Brett Johnson, director of visual arts at the Workhouse, recognizes the power of this kind of exhibit. “It’s really using art as a catalyst for the conversation that emerges, which is about them and about their service and about how they’re dealing now that they’re transitioning back into society,” he explains.
As part of the initiative, the Workhouse will have art exhibits, discounted classes for service members, and a new military artist resident. Sgt. Martin J. Cervantez, who enlisted in 1986 and became a military artist serving in Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan, is the first military artist in residence at the Workhouse. Acting as ambassador for this program, he did realistic, or what he calls representational, pieces when he was in the Army. The works were based on photographs, and because they captured the familiar look and feel of war, Cervantez explains that they served as “storytelling devices.”
A lot of his art now is more abstract, such as “Rocket Attack” in the current exhibit. “The impact is a bit more gripping and visceral,” he explains. With this piece his aim was to capture a precise instant of time. Many of these more abstract works feature dynamic swirling colors and textures creating an intense almost multisensory effect. Cervantez clarifies that there is deep thought behind these. His goal is to create abstractions out of real things.
The event on April 3 will feature the art that participants prepared during their week at the workshop with Warrior Writers and Combat Paper NJ. David Keefe, Combat Paper NJ program director, calls the process both deconstructive and cathartic. The actual act of grinding the uniforms allows participants to dismantle both the physical garment and the experiences they had in that clothing, Keefe says. When they put their stories on paper they can “liberate the rag,” as they call it. The deconstructive process enables them to make something new out of their experiences and, in a way, recover and reinvent their stories.
The act can be quite transformative. They may arrive on Monday feeling isolated and disconnected, Keefe says, but by the end of the week the paper becomes a canvas on which to convey their thoughts. This process helps veterans transition back into society and move from being silent to sharing their memories with nonveterans. “The veteran and nonveteran have to share the burden of experiences,” Keefe explains.
Using blank spaces, the veterans and service members will add their paper to an exhibit that features portrayals of the internal and external landscapes of war. The participants will also share original poetry and songs.
Combat Paper One Night Exhibit
Workhouse Arts Center
9518 Workhouse Way