The men and women of this particular military unit assemble weekly to perform a variation of turning swords into plowshares: they cut service uniforms into swatches of cloth, beat the cloth into pulp, transform the pulp into paper, and then use the paper for art.
This is Combat Paper New Jersey — an arts project created for veterans by veterans.
Meeting every Sunday at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey in Branchburg, these veterans of all military branches, experiences, and ages use the pieces of military fabric — and their lives — to make art and remake themselves. While the main focus is to engage those who served in war, all veterans are welcome.
Vietnam War veteran, activist, and regular attendee Jan Barry first encountered Combat Paper in 2008. “When I started cutting the uniform I felt like I was breaking every rule in the military. (But) I felt empowered. I was reclaiming memories attached to the uniform. Each one of these steps in the process has an impact on people. There are problems with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Some (veterans’) lives fell apart.”
Barry, who has lived with PTSD and been involved with veteran support programs for decades, says that veterans who have been through extreme combat situations often feel alienated and alone when they return to civilian life and have difficulty coping with daily routines. “(They) self medicate, drink, which I did when I was 25; they get through the day and deal with work.”
At Combat Paper sessions, he says, veterans can use art to explore their feelings, memories, and lives. “We create ways that we deal with (problems). The art work is venting in a more acceptable way.”
Barry says that in creating art one becomes lost and then found. “It’s the hands-on aspect that’s intense. You have to focus on it. And hours will go by without an intrusive thought. You go through a sustained period with the thoughts disappearing and think, ‘I should spend more time doing what I enjoy.’”
As an example, Barry, who is also a retired Bergen Record reporter and Rutgers University adjunct writing instructor, mentions a young soldier, suffering from PTSD, who attended a creative workshop and realized that if he created something he could take it home and show his wife what he dealt with. The artists working in the small, upstairs Combat Paper gallery illustrate Barry’s point.
Vietnam veteran Jim Fallon’s “U-Turn” is a print that combines graphics, text, and photo illustration. Two strong images immediately capture the eye: a Red Cross symbol at the center of the work and a thick black downward U-Turn arrow. At the top are the photo-processed images of a several young Asian children, a girl is prominent. At the lower left corner is text that reads: “She was gone and there was nothing I could do.”
The strongly designed work that combines the haunting statement and images is affective and powerful in itself; when Fallon takes a break from cutting uniforms and mentions that the work is for the memory of a girl who saved him from an ambush in Vietnam. The story enhances, rather than makes, the art, and allows the work to become a community shared pain and memory.
Fallon, who travels to Branchburg from Hoboken each week, points out a pedestal that displays layers of blank papers of different colors: whites, blues, greens, and various grays. “The obvious ones are blue for air force, white for navy. The white was Ben Levin’s World War II and Korean War-era uniform.”
Nearby in the gallery is a larger and multi-layered work by Eli Wright, who served as an army medic in Iraq from 2003-2004. His 2013 “Bio-Psycho-Social” involves uniform-based paper, pulp mold, spray paint, typewriting, and suture needles and thread. Literally and metaphorically sewing together elements from his life, Wright too includes imagery and text. The former in the central relief image of a brain, the latter with written references placed over the surfaces: “The Science of Memory,” “A Delicate Balance,” “In a Lonely Place,” and the statement: “I drove over the IED, and it didn’t go off, but the other guy got it.”
Wright, who came to New Jersey from Colorado via Fort Dix, says that he got involved with veteran art projects in 2007 and that his work is part of “that transformative process to take something with negative aspects and take ownership of it.”
Retired U.S. Marine Walter Nygard, from Teaneck, offers to lead a tour of the process. “We cut the uniforms to postage stamp size,” he says at the ground floor work table where Fallon (retired army), Walter Zimmerman (retired air force), and Dick Hammock (retired navy) are busy cutting and talking.
Moving down the lower floor area to show the two beaters whip the cloth to pulp, Nygard says the process “depends on the uniform from the war it was used in, the amount that we put in, and mechanical things. Today’s uniforms are synthetic and not good for paper, so I mixed in a 1960s shirt. It’s 100 percent cotton.”
Nygard mentions that a uniform in the mixture belonged to his son, who had completed three tours in the Middle East. He says the 1960s shirt represents his own service era. Taking pulp from the bath, he treats it with a mold (a frame with screen) and deckle (just a frame placed on the mold to make edges). “We make paper of different sizes and consistency. It’s very forgiving. If you screw up, you can throw it back and redo it.”
He then “kooches” the wet paper, lays it on thick cardboard, places a sheet of paper over it, and moves the batches to “the dry box,” an area where a fan blows on the sheets.
As he finishes explaining the process, Nygard says that while his son is now home and busy with work and family he hopes that he’ll join him at the center. “Vets help other vets in ways that is hard to describe,” he says.
Dick Hammock, a 25-year Plainsboro resident, says that he came to the group after being invited to a session by Fallon, a fellow Jersey City native. “My involvement is pretty darn recent. I came in just to help out with an extra set of hands. I was very nervous when I visited the first time. I didn’t know what to anticipate. I wasn’t a combat veteran, and I wasn’t an artist. Then everyone was so inviting and said, ‘We’ll show you the process and what we do.’ I was moved in a lot different ways that they express themselves. It clicked right away.”
He also understands how the process of veterans working with one another is important. “When they spend time together, that’s when they start expressing their experiences. I don’t think you have to have that experience to understand that people have a lot of feelings and memories that they keep to themselves and can’t shake. But I think that other military people may have more empathy for what other veterans had seen and felt. There’s an understanding, even with the post traumatic stress syndrome.”
Hammock, who was a commercial painter after the military, says that he comes mainly to participate in “breaking down” the uniforms and will take home buckets of them to cut and prepare for making pulp. “I am almost disappointed when there aren’t other ways that I can be of assistance. I am not an artist and there’s nothing on my mind that I need to express. But whatever they need I would be more than happy to do it. I’m contributing to them creating art.”
That art creating, he says, “is very collaborative. Somebody may have an idea and someone else can expound on it and look from a different perspective. It’s interesting to see how it weaves and comes together. It’s very powerful stuff. There are certain pieces that I remember that give me the chills.”
“This is an organization that makes a lot difference in peoples’ lives. It may give a lot of comfort for people who may be struggling one way or the other. It’s contagious to be around it,” he says.
David Keefe, Combat Paper NJ director and artist, says that veterans need an outlet to express and share their stories. Yet while art is the best way to accomplish this and give someone a tool to communicate events and express psychological and emotional states, the process is something bigger. “A lot of people think of this as art therapy. A lot of people say, ‘That’s great. That must be really healing.’ And our response is that it can be healing, and it can be something that is used as therapy, but it’s not just that. It’s a about social change and personal change, things that art provides. It provides transformation and encompasses many things. It’s about craft and building culture. We’re creating a culture.”
The Montclair-based visual artist, Montclair University adjunct instructor, and father of two lives the culture. As an art student at the University of Delaware when the September 11, 2001, attacks occurred, he responded by joining the U.S. Marines 11 days later. He served a total of six years, including a 2006-2007 tour of duty in Iraq. All the while, he says, he continued working on his art.
One of Keefe’s combat works: “Rasul,” a 2012 silkscreen image from a photograph of a marine in battle gear interacting with an Iraqi boy. “I couldn’t get over the fact that how much I looked like an alien to him. (I was) this big monster with all this gear on me, and this little kid was malnourished and (bowlegged). I remember going back to that same area a few times and seeing the same family just around. One time I went back and they were completely gone. … I don’t know what happened,” Keefe writes in a statement about the art.
When his tour of duty ended, Keefe, who has exhibited his paintings in New Jersey and New York galleries, says he returned to his studies and received an MA in art from Montclair and unwittingly set the stage for his involvement with Combat Paper.
The Printmaking Center of New Jersey executive director Linda Helm Krapf heard the national organizer speak about the work they were doing with veterans (see sidebar). That 2010 talk inspired her to develop a state-based program at the center. Keefe says, “Linda called me out of the blue and said, ‘I don’t know you, but you’re a marine and an artist.’ I was brought in during August, 2011. Linda hired me just to run Combat Paper on Sundays. But by March, 2012, we raised enough money through a Kickstarter campaign, and I started full-time.”
Keefe says that he met Wright, who was active with veteran art projects. With the support of the center’s non-profit status, the two were able to establish a national model that provides ongoing and sustainable Combat Paper projects in New Jersey and in Washington, D.C.
While their goals are to provide as many opportunities for veterans as possible, their efforts are still small compared to the need. According to statistics collected by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, roughly 2 million U.S. troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Of those, a third will develop PTSD. The Friends report also cites the Rand Corporation’s estimate that approximately 320,000 may have experienced traumatic brain injury during deployment. It also uses the Army Times’ report that 18 veterans commit suicide every day.
Keefe understands the task and says, “One of the biggest concerns as the war is winding down is that veterans live their whole lives as veterans and the problems do not go away. That’s a major concern. As far as the organization goes, that’s the biggest. As long as the money is there we’ll be able to reach veterans. One of the biggest concerns is donor fatigue,” the process of funders tiring of one cause and moving to another.
He says that it is difficult to get new veterans to come in. “From experience I know you want to forget about things. You want to get on with your life. That is a big concern to getting new veterans involved. But I find that it takes boots on the ground to find where the veterans are. That’s the concern is getting funding to get boots on the ground. It’s a concern to get young veterans out of the basement.”
Meanwhile on this Sunday afternoon, the faint and rhythmic squeak of scissors cutting camouflage uniforms continues. The talk flows from art to the best type of scissors to the durable construction of military uniforms to family situations and to the plight of others, including a Vietnam vet who experiences PTSD recently being told by a psychologist “To get over it.”
“There’s no cure for PTSD,” says Sarah Mess, a Branchburg-based army soldier. “But if you want to sell pharmaceuticals, you tell people to take your pills.” Mess served in combat and in hospital operating rooms, and her scrubs from Somalia are the foundation of some of the workshop’s paper.
Thinking for a moment, she says, “Besides the fact that we’re all vets, you know what else is unique about all this? How many places would you find people of different ages and we all hang out like it’s the most natural thing? When (vets) come in that door, they feel like they’re part of the family.”
It is also a place where Veterans Day is more than a one day remembrance.
Combat Paper NJ, Printmaking Center of New Jersey, 440 River Road, Branchburg. Sundays noon to 4 p.m. Open to all veterans. Free. For more information, to share with a veteran, to make a financial or uniform donation, visit www.printnj.org/combat-paper or call 908-725-2110.
#b#Origins of Combat Paper#/b#
Combat Paper New Jersey is part of a network that includes mills — or papermaking centers — in New York State, Nevada, and San Francisco, where the project is based.
The roots of the papermaking project reach to 2004 when 22-year-old Iraq-war army veteran Drew Cameron took 27-year-old artist Drew Matott’s papermaking workshop at a community college in Burlington, Vermont.
As their collaboration and friendship continued, so did the expansion of their ideas. Cameron became involved with Iraq War Veterans Against the War and art activities to help returning veterans. Matott, who had once used his deceased father’s clothing to make paper, became more of an activist to bring attention to the problems caused by the war. After viewing an art show that used paper made from AIDS victims’ clothing, Matott suggested that they use this “transformative” process to assist veterans to transform themselves through art. The Combat Paper background materials say that the “transformation occurs and our collective language is born.” The process includes moving “from uniform to pulp/battlefield to workshop/warrior to artist.”
The project was officially launched in 2007, and Cameron (who serves as director in San Francisco) and Matott conducted workshops and increased the network of warrior-artists, including those that would shape Combat Paper NJ. “The first collaborations that come to mind are with Jan Barry, a Vietnam vet. He and I have collaborated on broadsides together and a poetry book. He’s also collaborated with. Eli Wright; they’ve done other art together. It’s a really cool exchange because some of the things that my generation of vets are on the cusp of discovering they already have. It’s not the kind of thing that they exactly can tell you; it just comes through experience and understanding. So there’s a gentle patience within them. And they’re eager to help it along in us,” says Cameron in a printed interview.