The Marines call them “utilities,” the Army calls them “fatigues.”
These are the forest and jungle-green camouflage all-purpose cotton uniforms worn by veterans of wars in the Pacific, Far East, Southeast Asia, Central America — lightweight cotton garb designed for everything from warm woodsy climates to searing jungle heat.
But over the last couple of decades, there has been quite a different look to the uniforms, which are now the color of the dirt-and-sand terrain of the Persian Gulf countries, the Middle and Near East.
Wherever the uniforms have come from and whatever the nomenclature, at a special weeklong workshop at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton facilitated by Combat Paper New Jersey (CPNJ), various pieces of old military attire have been reclaimed and transformed into artwork — first, into handmade paper, then into individual works of art designed to facilitate a dialogue between the veteran who wore the uniform and the viewer looking at the art.
The Combat Paper workshops also allow the veteran — through deconstructing and transforming his/her uniform — to rethink and, most importantly, to start on the road to heal from his or her experience in the military, especially if that experience included combat. Families and loved ones of vets can undergo the same transformative experience through CPNJ.
“This was the first time Combat Paper N.J. had offered a workshop in Mercer County, and there was a lot of interest,” says Cassandra Demski, curator of education at GFS.
“GFS staff learned about Combat Paper N.J. a few years ago and was interested in working together in the future,” Demski says. “Our founder, Seward Johnson, is a veteran, and we have always been interested in reaching out to service members in our local area. A few years later, GFS was fortunate to receive a Dodge Foundation grant to use for a program of our choice, so we then reached out to Combat Paper to explore what we could offer together for veterans and service members.”
For the next couple of months, visitors to GFS can see what the veterans accomplished through CPNJ. “The Combat Paper Project” exhibition features powerful works on paper created at these workshops, and runs from Saturday, August 13, through Sunday, October 2, in the Education Gallery.
“Working with the veterans and service members who participated in the workshop allowed me to better understand how complex their military experiences are and the impact these experiences have on the rest of their lives,” says Demski. “I did not fully understand how difficult the transition back to civilian life can be. Getting to know the Combat Paper staff and the participants deepened my respect and gratitude for the sacrifices the service members have made.”
Helmed over the past five years by artist, arts educator, and Marine Corps veteran David Keefe, CPNJ has been based at the Print Center of New Jersey in Branchburg.
CPNJ is part of a network that includes mills — or papermaking centers — in New York, Nevada, and San Francisco, where the project is based.
The roots of the papermaking project reach to 2004 when a 22-year-old Iraq War Army veteran took artist a papermaking workshop at a community college in Burlington, Vermont, and saw the potential to help fellow war veterans.
CPNJ helps veterans express their complex experiences through art-making and the language of papermaking. Its goal is to build and strengthen the veteran and non-veteran community by changing the culture of the “silent veteran,” transforming the vet into a storyteller, the non-veteran into a witness.
The vets integrate drawings, photographs, iconic images, and words, utilizing silkscreen and other printmaking techniques to communicate their ideas and stories. When exhibited at such a venue as Grounds For Sculpture, the artwork is a platform for interaction with the public, viewers who may not understand the complex maze of physical and psychological issues many veterans experience.
This interaction and validation helps bridge the gap that causes feelings of isolation between veterans and the non-veteran/non-military public.
Now CPNJ has grown so much that it has become the flagship program of the new nonprofit Frontline Arts, whose mission is to fire up awareness and activism by supporting socially engaged artists and art projects to connect communities.
A recent pre-exhibition visit to the workshop provides a glimpse into CPNJ. Here at the main entrance to GFS’ Johnson Education Center are about a dozen pieces of handmade paper drying in the afternoon sun. Signs warn that this is “artwork in process” and “please do not touch.”
The chunky, greyish-white pieces of paper have variations in color and slight imperfections — bits of fiber and maybe a bubble or two here and there. This is the material that would later be made into artwork by participants at the workshop.
This “combat paper” has been created from a batch of completely recycled military uniforms. Just a day earlier, it might have been someone’s “camos,” cut apart into postage stamp-sized pieces, which were then put into a special portable pulping machine, then beaten into pulp and made into paper.
In a room just off GFS’ education gallery, one can see examples of paper made from Air Force “Blues,” Army fatigues, and Marine Corps utilities from the Vietnam War, U.S. Marine Corps digital desert camouflage, or “camos,” Surgical technician’s scrubs from the conflict in Mogadishu, Somalia, circa 1993, a Vietnam-era U.S. Army class-A uniform, and (outstanding in its Mr. Clean whiteness) a 1950s-era Navy officer’s dress whites. All of these uniforms have been transformed into pieces of thick paper in a variety of hues.
In a scrapbook that contains a variety of artwork by past participants of CPNJ, there is a nicely rendered linoleum block print of a pensive Marine and his Vietnam-era gear, walking through a patch of elephant grass that towers over him.
This particular piece was created by New Jersey native and Marine Corps veteran Walt Nygard, who first came to CPNJ about five years ago to work out his memories and thoughts left over from his time in Vietnam, circa 1969-’70.
Now Nygard is a busy employee, traveling around the eastern U.S. to help facilitate the CPNJ workshops, and keeping the much-used papermaking machinery humming, among other duties.
He says he always loved drawing and studied art for a while but had never done any printmaking — definitely not with handmade paper, and certainly not from paper he had crafted himself, from his own cotton utilities.
“It just really took off for me,” Nygard says. “I really enjoyed making the paper, making the art, and it’s turned into the best job I’ve ever had. We’ve been all over. We’ve gone to Washington, D.C., to the Walter Reed (Army) Medical Center, to Bethesda (Naval Hospital), to various colleges in New Jersey, even to the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine.”
Some of the completed CPNJ art contains poetry and text as well as visual design. A visitor sees artwork incorporating the phrase “Shock and Awe,” someone’s reflection that “I’m the only thing I’m afraid of,” as well as the quirky “Parasoup DuJour,” an illustration featuring a pan of soup dangling from a parachute.
In a room adjacent to the workshop space, the portable pulping machine nicknamed “Proud Mary” is grinding away, beating a Cold War-era Air Force uniform into bluish-gray pulp.
On the floor nearby is a large plastic container of little squares, the cut rag that was once an assortment of uniforms, ready for “Proud Mary” to do its thing, and make a new batch of pulp.
Long before the cloth goes into the pulper, “Everything has to go,” Nygard says. “All the seams, the hems, the insignia, buttons, zippers, the Velcro on the modern uniforms, it all has to be made into flat little pieces. They go in the beater, and if it’s 100 percent cotton, it goes in straight.”
“When we start a week of workshops, the first thing I do is put in a batch of pulp because we need it non-stop,” he says. “This week we brought four buckets of pulp, and we’re making more. It’s a non-stop process. Most uniforms get thrown in together and it’s called ‘community pulp,’ but if a veteran comes in with his/her uniform and wants to do a specific art project, we’ll make a dedicated batch from their uniforms and make sheets of paper for whatever they’re working on.”
“We have a ton of uniforms, but we could always use more,” Nygard continues. “I have so many of them in my basement, and they’ve been sent from all over and from many different wars, including World War II.”
The staff and volunteers at CPNJ prefer 100 percent cotton because it creates premium paper. The polyester and synthetic blends that make up the more modern uniforms need to have cotton additives to break them down into the best pulp for papermaking.
Now the pulp is ready, and it is poured into a vat and taken to the room where the papermaking is in process. Participants use a mould and deckle — a humble papermaking tool that resembles a picture frame — to pull sheets.
The batch of almost-ready pulp is a blue-gray puree, with little bits of soap suds popping up here and there.
“When you beat up these uniforms you get residual soap and detergent, dirt that might still be in the uniform,” Nygard says. “Some of the uniforms have barely been worn. Others have been worn to the point where you can smell them.”
Nygard reflects that he and Keefe have heard some negativity about the program, especially the aspect of deconstructing the uniforms. Certain detractors have complained that taking apart the uniforms is a kind of desecration.
Not so, Nygard says. “Nobody has more respect for these uniforms than we do.”
Combat Paper Project, Education Gallery, Grounds For Sculpture, 80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. Saturday, August 13, through Sunday, October 2. Free with park admission, $18. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.
For more information on Combat Paper: www.combatpapernj.org, www.facebook.com/combatpapernj, or www.frontlinearts.org.