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Tragedy and trauma inspire soldier's art

By MARK PATTON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 28, 2011

WIESBADEN, Germany — War and conflict have provided artists a canvas of creativity for ages. Just look at Picasso’s “Guernica” or Ernest Hemingway’s war-time writings for a couple of examples.

A traveling art exhibit spearheaded by an Army sergeant continues the tradition by using the backdrop of 9/11 and the current conflicts as a tool for troops to overcome trauma. The exhibit is titled “Reflections of Generosity: Toward Restoration and Peace.”

Sgt. Ron Kelsey, 30, is the founder and creative director of the exhibit. Kelsey, an Iraq war veteran, currently serves as the scheduler for the command sergeant major of U.S. Army Europe in Heidelberg.

The exhibit features paintings, sculptures and songs from military members and international artists. Kelsey’s wife, Kyla, is a professional opera singer and serves as the exhibit’s music director.

“Sometimes, as soldiers, we kind of shelter ourselves from trauma, we almost cage ourselves, or put ourselves in a box,” Kelsey said. “The exhibit gets the soldier out of the box. It cuts the chain of trauma that binds them to the event.”

Trauma is something Kelsey has seen firsthand; in fact the roots of “Reflections” were spawned from tragedy.

A decade ago, the Covington, Ky., native was an Army Reserve soldier. He also was an art and religion student at Wabash College in Indiana who received an internship with New York City artist Makoto Fujimura.

“When Ron came in, he had the entrepreneurial quality that I look for in my interns. ... He had this intensity, too, which made him an ideal person to have in the studio,” said Fujimura, a presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts and founder of the nonprofit International Arts Movement.

Kelsey arrived in New York City one month before Sept. 11, 2001.

He recalled watching the events unfold on an old black-and-white television set at the Bronx Armory Building and rushing to 32nd Street to check on his fellow art students.

“I smelled the smells of war,” Kelsey said. “The same smells I smelled on 9/11, I smelled in Iraq, just that burning.”

A few days later, Fujimura told Kelsey that tragedy shouldn’t stop him from being an artist, advice Kelsey has passed on.

“Seeing him as an artist deal with the lives lost around him, I was able to use his experience to learn how to respond to Iraq myself,” Kelsey said. “Now I’m able to teach other soldiers how to respond and use art as a form of healing.”

Kelsey’s most recent exhibit ends Saturday at Heidelberg. He has led two previous exhibits at Fort Drum, N.Y., and Ansbach, Germany, and he plans to open another at either Kansas’ Fort Riley or in Italy on Sept. 11.

The U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt has also expressed interest in being a host to the exhibit, and there are talks of taking it to the Pentagon.

“Sgt. Kelsey’s artwork demonstrates that soldiers are often Renaissance men and women, in that they are highly skilled soldiers who have creative talents as well,” USAREUR Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Capel said in an e-mail.

Kelsey, who hopes to become a military chaplain, had to turn down an offer to take the exhibit to a gallery in New York City because of the cost. Kelsey pays most of the transport costs for the artwork out of his pocket.

Heidelberg Arts and Cultural Center director Ed Codina, whom Kelsey credits for helping to organize the most recent exhibit, hopes the military will offer full-sponsorship of the program in the future so it can reach more troops.

Balancing his military career, marriage, three kids, his exhibit and serving as military liaison for the International Arts Movement takes some work, but Kelsey’s supervisor, Sgt. 1st Class Steven Cooper, said Kelsey doesn’t neglect his Army duties.

“I wish I could pin staff sergeant on him right now. ... He’s the first one at work all the time and you have to push him out of the office,” said Cooper.

Despite the growing popularity of his art — a lithograph titled “Homecoming IR Flag” recently was purchased at a charity auction for $500 by Ed Gillespie, former counsel to President George W. Bush — Kelsey wants to remain a non-profit artist.

“I’m not here to take money from soldiers,” Kelsey said. “I’m here to support them.”

For more information on Kelsey’s work, see www.reflectionsofgenerosity.com

pattonm@estripes.osd.mil

Sgt. Ron Kelsey stands in front of his piece 'Homecoming IR Flag,' a work of art he originally commissioned to be given to soldiers returning from Iraq. Kelsey, 30, currently serves as the scheduler for the command sergeant major of U.S. Army Europe in Heidelberg, Germany.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

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