Army veteran is Fort Ligonier's first artist-in-residence
By MARY PICKELS | Tribune-Review | Published: July 29, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — Throughout the grounds of Fort Ligonier, there are images of women in roles — comforting, nurturing, hunting — they have assumed in times of war past and present.
They are the creation of the fort’s first artist-in-residence, Elise Wigle-Wells, Army veteran and lecturer in Saint Vincent College’s art department.
Wigle-Wells, 38, of Stahlstown believes the Ligonier site is the right spot for her installation, “HER,” featuring sculptures, paintings and photos.
“This is a battleground and a burial ground,” she said.
Wood, wax, copper, rope, sand, dirt and thread, are among the “found” materials in her work.
She used her grandmother’s stockpot to boil bones and melt wax.
Females in the installation use divining sticks, wring blood from hospital rags or hunch alone on rafts they are guiding.
On 9/11, while a sophomore college art student, Wigle-Wells decided to follow her brother, Roger Wigle, a Marine, into the military.
“I wanted to be a part of something. I saw the change in my brother,” she said.
Wigle-Wells enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a heavy wheel vehicle mechanic.
“I’ve always been a tomboy. I didn’t want to sit in an office. Mechanics worked out for me. I enjoyed it,” she said.
Knowing she wanted a family, she decided against a military career.
“I didn’t have a bad experience. I was so proud and grateful I did it,” Wigle-Wells said.
While she went on to have a family — she has a son, Ethan, 12, and daughter, Lyla, 11 — her marriage ended and she returned from Fort Carson, Colo., to her Stahlstown home.
“I dove right back into school,” she said.
She earned her bachelor’s degree at Saint Vincent College and a master of fine arts degree from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Her lecturing work allows her time to continue her own artwork.
“They feed each other. I don’t get overwhelmed. … I have my studio projects and I get to teach and talk about art. I never want to stop learning, and I learn so much from my students,” she says.
As a child playing in nearby fields, Wigle-Wells said she wondered if Native Americans died there and if their remains were underfoot.
As an adult, she wondered about burial grounds.
“I started thinking about Gettysburg. So much trauma was absorbed there at once. … This land (Fort Ligonier) has so much history and loss,” Wigle-Wells added.
“We don’t have a perspective of what it looks like to go to war and process these events as female archetypes,” she said.
“HER,” she said, is not her own story.
“It’s about all of the women throughout the landscape of time, not just the French and Indian War or now … and how (women) receive the reverberations of war in a different way,” Wigle-Wells said.
“It was important to me the women in the sculptures and paintings looked like they could be from the past, present or future,” she said.
Finding “HER” home
Erica Nuckles, Fort Ligonier’s director of history and collections, said Wigle-Wells approached her about the residency.
“I just thought it was a great idea. We are always trying to make the past relevant,” she said.
Wigle-Wells’ experience as an Iraq veteran reflects the timeline of war and “HER” shows how women have always been a part of war, Nuckles added.
“It ties in with the stories of women and war at the museum. I studied gender and war. This [exhibit] made sense to both of us,” she said.
Nuckles created a lobby panel for the exhibit, using Wigle-Wells’ words to describe the installation.
“We just walked around the fort together to get a sense of what spaces might work for her and our daily operations,” Nuckles said.
“The hospital ward is a space where women would have been working [during wartime]. The art reflects women’s roles of caring for the wounded,” she added.
Sharing “HER” life
Women not only fight, they have given birth to every man on a battlefield, Wigle-Wells said.
“We are all connected and we are all just helping each other, and the ways women do that [in wartime] have been overlooked,” she said.
“It’s not ‘We do all the work and don’t get any attention.’ I wanted it to be about the [traumatic] ripple effect is different for us,” she said.
Her work, she says, is open to interpretation.
“If someone sees something I don’t intend, that’s my favorite thing,” she said.
The museum may host another artist-in-residence, Nuckles said.
“If the opportunity presents itself, it’s something we are open to. We love when the fort inspires people, which is exactly what it’s done with Elise. Her art is really powerful,” she said.
Wigle-Wells will give a 2 p.m. lecture at Fort Ligonier on Aug. 4, the final day of the installation, addressing art and war.