Museumgoers see combat through veterans’ art
CHICAGO — The weight of a metal canteen; the weight of a hand grenade; the weight of trauma. One Chicago art museum aims to give visitors better appreciation for the burdens carried by troops — largely through the eyes of veterans.
The National Veterans Art Museum is part gallery and part hands-on classroom, providing a creative outlet for veteran artists and educating a public who has had a decreasing connection to those who serve since the U.S. changed to an all-volunteer military in 1973.
“There’s still this large disconnect between those serving and the general population,” the museum’s gallery coordinator, Destinee Oitzinger, said. “A lot of the art tries to explain things civilians don’t understand.”
The museum began as an art exhibition by Vietnam War veterans who opened the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in 1996. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan creating a new generation of combat veterans, the museum expanded to include art from and about veterans of all U.S. conflicts, changing its name to the National Veterans Art Museum in 2009. The art varies greatly, from statues to abstract painting, but every piece is by or about veterans.
Occupying a small upstairs gallery in the artsy Portage Park neighborhood, the museum features a temporary exhibition — currently it’s a nine-year portrait project called “100 Faces of War Experience” — and a permanent installation on the Vietnam War based on the book “The Things They Carried.” The Vietnam exhibit offers a literal and figurative illustration of the book’s title, with an extensive collection of everyday items that American troops carried in the jungles of Vietnam — from grenades to canteens — that visitors can pick up and examine. Also included are photos, letters and art showing the war experience through their lens.
The museum also rotates exhibitions from its 2,500-piece collection. One of several on display now is Maurice Costello’s “Autobiography,” in which the phases of the artist’s life — motorcycle-riding young man; soldier in combat; drug-addled veteran and family man — are laid out chronologically. His experiences are reflected in sunglasses drawn on brightly colored oversized cutouts of his head.
The nonprofit museum, which is supported though grants and donations, emphasizes education and regularly brings in groups of high school and college students. It also draws a mixed group, including those with no military connection, many veterans and even more loved ones of veterans who often yearn to learn about the experiences of those who don’t share them, Oitzinger said.
“It’s a way to get the story out,” said Jim Moore, a Vietnam veteran, filmmaker and longtime museum board member. “It’s cathartic to a lot of the artists — they get to express some thoughts and ideas and feelings they don’t normally get to express in their day-to-day life.”
Healing and understanding are themes that come up repeatedly in conversations with those connected to the museum, and it sponsors art therapy classes by licensed clinicians. Executive director Brendan Foster said that outside of that environment, the museum, its art and the outlet it provides can help veteran artists who often deal with multiple stigmas — the perception that they are damaged, a persistent negative image associated with seeking help for the effects of trauma, and the very fact of working as an artist.
“We think there is inherent in the creative process a therapeutic element,” Foster said. “Bringing this all together can help alleviate some of those stigmas.”
Much of the museum’s collection deals with Vietnam, but with hundreds of thousands of veterans having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, new generations of artists are bringing their own style to postwar art. Oitzinger said the GI Bill is allowing more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to get formalized art education.
A lot of their art is “more conceptual,” she said, “whereas Vietnam veterans tend to be more, ‘This is how it was, this is what I saw.’ ”
For Giuseppe Pellicano, an Oregon artist and Army veteran who served in Kosovo, the museum is “the center hub” of the veteran artist community. Pellicano, whose work has been displayed there, said veterans showing their experiences through art can bring them closer to other Americans, who often misunderstand them.
“I would like the civilian community to understand that veterans don’t have the monopoly on sorrow or trauma or PTSD,” he said. “It’s more about not separating and not a division of communities — but hopefully an inclusion, [an understanding] that we are part of the community.”
Exhibits are chosen by the board, and Oitzinger and Foster say they keep politics out of the equation. That is not to say the art is always apolitical — it ranges from stridently anti-war to supportive of U.S. wars — but the museum strives to be open to all ideas and mediums.
“We’re here to support that open conversation,” Oitzinger said.
Encompassing that range is Matt Mitchell’s “100 Faces of War Experience.” Mitchell, who is not a veteran, spent nine years seeking to paint a cross-section of those who went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan to better understand their experiences. Starting in 2005, he traveled around the country to paint 100 portraits and gave his subjects a chance to provide up to 250 words to go unedited with their portraits.
Some wrote about their struggles, some wrote about their pride in service, some wrote poetry, a few wrote nothing — an untidy mix of experiences veterans have, rather than the simplified version often portrayed in popular culture. For Mitchell, the National Veterans Art Museum was one place he could trust to portray those mixed messages, from subversive to flag-waving.
“Here is a group who is not going to try to gloss over or simplify the message,” he said. “They’re not afraid of a complex nature to veterans’ experiences.”