Local service members gathered with friends and Family at the Art League’s Madison Annex in Alexandria, Virginia, Friday evening to share their personal stories through visual art and poetry.
The exhibition and reading showcased the fruits of a weeklong art and writing workshop conducted by staffers from two nonprofits, Frontline Paper and Warrior Writers, at the USO Family and Warrior Center at Fort Belvoir June 11-14.
During the workshop, approximately 20 service members worked with a team of six facilitators to reflect upon their military experiences, and creatively narrate them in aesthetic form.
Through the papermaking process in which Frontline Paper specializes, the actual uniforms service members wore while living out their stories were transformed into the medium on which those tales would be retold.
“The stories are in the uniforms,” said Nathan Lewis, a facilitator from Frontline Paper. “Each uniform tells a story from the person who wore it, so to take that as a platform to tell another story about their service is just a really unique way to communicate.”
Lewis and other facilitators guided participants as they cut up their own uniforms into small strips of fabric that were grinded into pulp in a machine called a Hollander beater.
The pulp was then formed into sheets by hand, pressed, and dried into textured, colorful pieces of paper upon which participants experimented with a wide range of artistic techniques including painting, charcoal and pastel drawing, stenciling, letterpress printing, and mixed-media printing.
In conjunction with the papermaking component of the workshop, facilitators from Warrior Writers led service members through daily writing exercises in which they were prompted to contemplate significant moments in their military careers, such as the first time they put on their uniforms, while also looking ahead to the life they envision after their military service.
“I think it’s just really great how the writing and the paper making works together,” said Lovella Calica, founder and director of Warrior Writers. “The writing can be pretty heavy and hard to pick through sometimes, and it’s nice to have a break from that, go into the papermaking and do something very physical, get your hands dirty and get your mind busy, and then also put the writing back onto the paper.”
A Marine who asked to be identified only as Matthew A. said the writing exercises helped him process his recollections of more than two decades of military service, and generated ideas for how his recollections could be translated into visual imagery.
“What’s interesting is that as you go through the writing process, you start going through your catalogue of memories, and at the same time it brings up certain images, and then you start to put together some of those images to match some of the things you’ve written about,” Matthew A. said.
His contribution to 17 visual artworks on display at the Art League was “Three Little Birds,” an inkjet print on handmade paper that juxtaposes two silhouette-like photographic negatives.
The first is an image of Matthew A. taken during a 2012 deployment to Afghanistan. The other is a photo Matthew A. took of three Afghan girls he met on urban patrol during that deployment.
“They were just three kids having a good time just like kids out in a park in Alexandria or anywhere else would be having fun, and it just struck me, everything that they had seen in their lives,” Matthew A. said. “They’ve never not known war and atrocities and all this stuff.”
Above the image of the girls is a short quote drawn from the Bob Marley song that gave Matthew A.’s print its title: “Every little thing, gon’ be alright…”
“It’s the idea that everything is going to be alright, and the idea of me being there standing in front of them, it’s kind of conveying, just as long as we’re here, everything is going to be alright,” Matthew A. explained.
In addition to displaying his print, Matthew A. joined six other service members in reading poems composed during the workshop.
His poems “On Writing” and “Letter to My Future Self” were emotionally candid chronicles of his ongoing efforts to heal from the scars of military service.
“It’s absolutely therapeutic to do this,” Matthew A. said. “It brought a lot of stuff back, but at the same time, it helped me catalogue more neatly in my mind some things that have either been troubling me or didn’t make sense necessarily.”
Another participant, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Shelby Gage, said making art and writing poetry was an “illuminating” opportunity to take stock of a watershed moment in her life as she prepares to leave the military.
After three years of service as a corpsman at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Gage said she will soon be relocating to her home state of Texas, where she will continue to cultivate her creative abilities by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at the University of Texas at Austin.
A pair of Gage’s artworks depicted the sun setting over Washington, D.C., while rising over Austin, Texas.
“I think it was very therapeutic to be able to change the uniform to something completely different,” Gage said. “It was nice to be able to express what I was feeling about the uniform at the time. My time here is over, and I’m going to have a new beginning. It represented a new beginning to me.”
Gage said Friday’s exhibition and reading was a fitting way to gather once more with the fellow service members she had gotten to know at the workshop and throughout her time at Fort Belvoir.
“I knew a lot about a lot of these people, but it’s nice to hear more of their voice through their work,” Gage said. “You see it through their artwork, you hear it through their poems, and it’s a deeper meaning than the conversations you have in the hallway.“
Last week’s workshop and exhibition was one of several workshops Frontline Paper and Warrior Writers will conduct at Fort Belvoir and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
This is the sixth year during which the organizations have partnered on this program, and organizers said they were pleased to be able to continue to offer service members an outlet for creative expression and a forum for connecting with other service members and the general public.
“At the end of the week we’re always really proud of the work that we’ve put together, the writing and what goes on the gallery wall,” Lewis said. “It’s really cool as a facilitator to keep seeing people step up and make good stuff and be proud of it and bring their friends and families to show it off at the end of the week.”
Pentagram Staff Writer Francis Chung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.