Veterans turn their old uniforms into works of art

Veterans turn their old uniforms into works of art
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

This is a serious change of clothes.

A new art exhibit opening at Art 101 gallery in Williamsburg on March 6 will feature works from veterans using paper made out of their old uniforms. The show is part of the Combat Paper Project, which helps returning soldiers cope with trauma and other issues by teaching them to make the paper and then turn it into art. A former Army medic who returned from service in 2008 said the process is cathartic for a lot of veterans he sees.

“It’s a transformational experience for some soldiers,” said Eli Wright, who participated in the program and now instructs other vets. “They go through the process of de-constructing the uniform rag and then they reclaim it as medium to tell their stories.”

To make the paper, the soldiers first cut-up their old threads into postage stamp-sized squares. They put the pieces through a beater machine that mixes in some water and macerates the fabric into a pulp. Then the slurry is poured into a mold, the water is drained, and it is pressed until it dries. After they have the paper, the participants get to chose how they want to express themselves and what they want to say.

Works in the Art 101 show, titled “Beyond the Uniform,” include screen-prints, paintings, and sculptures, all created from the handmade paper.

“That’s why I think it’s so effective,” said contributor Kevin Basl, who did two tours in Iraq with the Army. “It’s open for interpretation.”

Basl said one piece he has in the show is particularly special to him and his family. It is made from the uniform his grandfather wore during the Korean War, and features a screen-printed photograph of his grandfather at basic training. The two had never talked about their service before Basl decided to make the painting, and he interviewed his grandfather about his time in the Army when he started working on it. Then his grandfather passed away a few weeks later, leaving the family with the recorded interview, and the screen-printed uniform.

“My family is just happy that they have this piece of his history that was almost lost,” he said.

One of Wright’s pieces in the show features a large portrait of a veteran screaming into a phone that has no one on the other line. He made the painting after a friend of his, who was in the Marine Corps, attempted to commit suicide, he said.

“It’s like he is crying out for help, and he feels like nobody’s listening,” Wright said about the character.

More than just a form of art therapy, the program also provides veterans with a sense of camaraderie when they might be feeling isolated and alienated, Wright said.

“I really needed to find a community of like-minded veterans,” he said. “This was exactly what I needed to deal with my experience in a positive way.”

“Beyond the Uniform” at Art 101 [101 Grand St. between Berry Street and Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, (718) 302–2242, www.art101brooklyn.com]. Opening March 6 from 6–9 pm. Runs through April 5. Free.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Masking paper: Eli Wright made these masks with paper constructed from a recycled military uniform. He said they represent victims of wartime torture.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini