NC veteran hopes art bridges divide between military, civilians
By RODGER MULLEN | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Services) | Published: March 7, 2016
For Trish Brownlee, art can be a means to bridge the gap between military and civilian worlds.
Some of the results of that attempt line the walls of a hallway at Cape Fear Regional Theatre, where a military-themed play, "Downrange: Voices from the Homefront," is being staged.
Photographs of soldiers printed on rough paper are tacked to the walls. Some of the photographs have been marred with lines or scribbles.
Beneath the photos are hand-written testimonials:
"She was a single mom in active-duty military. One deployment when she came back, she had to fight to get custody of her son back from her ex-husband," one reads in part.
Another says: "I was lucky, I think. I had a good career. Nothing bad ever happened to me."
And: "You survive by never having a hair out of place, always looking perfect. But inside, it was breaking me down."
Brownlee, a former military photographer who is married to a soldier, hopes the exhibit, titled "About Face," inspires discussion.
"I think art can be a way of storytelling," she said. "I wanted it to be as real as I could make it."
Brownlee served in the Air Force and Army from 2004-11. Her husband, Steve Brownlee, is in the Army.
Brownlee, who earned a master's in visual arts from Pacific Northwest College of Art, teaches at Capitol Encore Academy. She also occasionally takes photos for The Fayetteville Observer.
Work on the project began in 2012. Initially, Brownlee focused on her own family as subjects; later, she began incorporating friends into the process.
Brownlee photographed the soldiers. The pictures were printed on paper that Brownlee makes herself using scraps of old military uniforms. In a painstaking process, the scraps of uniform are combined with other materials to make a pulp, which is then made into paper.
As a way of inviting the subjects into the process, Brownlee encouraged them to modify the photographs to illustrate their particular situation.
For instance, one soldier drew lightning bolt-like scratches coming out of his ear to symbolize hearing problems he suffered over the course of multiple deployments. Another put makeup on her picture to represent her post-military career as an aesthetician.
Brownlee also told some of the soldiers' stories in the testimonials that accompany the photographs. The words paint a picture of the stresses and challenges of military life.
"What I lost was that time with my daughter," one testimonial reads. "I'll never have that back."
The exhibit also contains traditional photographs and displays depicting military life. One striking photograph shows Steve Brownlee sitting on a couch in uniform, an M-15 rifle leaning between him and the Brownlee's now 21/2-year-old daughter, Aurora.
"I wanted to explore what it's like to come back after deployment and try to fit back into your family and the awkwardness of that process," Brownlee said.
The display also includes a dinner table set for one to symbolize the absence of a spouse, as well as dolls given to children of deployed soldiers.
The display is intended to complement the "Downrange" play, which continues at the theater through March 20. The play, written by North Carolina playwright Mike Wiley, dramatizes the stories of local military spouses.
"I feel like what the play is doing is the same thing the art is doing," Brownlee said. "It's just doing it in a different medium."
Brownlee is scheduled to present a workshop on the paper making process Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the theater, 1209 Hay St.
She also has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund "Breaking Rag," a community project to tell the stories of military families. More information is available at Brownlee's website, trishbrownlee.weebly.com.
While the "About Face" display can seem curious or even confusing to anyone not connected to the military, Brownlee said her hope is that it encourages conversation and ultimately, understanding.
"The only way we're really going to understand it is by listening to those who have been in the military," she said. "I think that's the only way our country will understand the consequences of the war on terror."
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