Veterans' art: The explosive truth about our American reality

Disturbing images fill some of the art, but is society paying attention to what endless war means for them and the rest of us?
Crosscut archive image.

Tea Time by Giuseppe Pellicano

Disturbing images fill some of the art, but is society paying attention to what endless war means for them and the rest of us?

Picture a little girl, say, 4 years old, with long brown hair and large brown eyes. She is all dressed up, a ribbon in her hair, hosting a tea party for imaginary friends. The table in her bedroom is carefully arranged. A teddy bear sits behind her on a tricycle. Looking at the scene, you murmur “cute,” or “how darling.” Then you notice something odd and deeply disturbing. In the other chair at the table sits a hand grenade the size of a human torso.

This image is the work of  artist Giuseppe Pellicano, a former Army medic (from 2000 to 2004), who was stationed in Kosovo.

The photo image is part of a series in which the large grenade appears. In another image, the grenade lies in bed next to Pellicano’s wife, her face wet with tears and lined with despair. In a third, the grenade is seated at the head of the table as a family of five eats dinner.

These were among the disturbing images that Pellicano and three other artists who are recent veterans of U.S. wars discussed in a presentation at the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture in tiny and remote Joseph, Oregon recently.

As Pellicano and his fellow vets spoke of their combat experience and of their return to home and family, the message of the grenade was clear: Having a combat vet in the family means living with someone who might explode.

But there’s another, a deeper and more complex message in Pellicano’s series of photos with a grenade. Each of the four veterans who talked about their work noted the way America’s recent wars have gone on with little notice or disruption of life at home in America.

To be sure, for veterans and their families or for families who have lost a loved one in combat, it is a different story. But for the majority of Americans the childhood tea party, the dinner table, the bedroom are undisturbed by events in Iraq or Afghanistan, in Kosovo or Somalia. Life in the age of the “all volunteer army,” deployed in multiple spots around the globe, does not intrude all that much into the daily life of people in America.

Moreover, this detachment has been taken to yet another level entirely by drone warfare. In the work of another of the vets, Ash Kyrie, emperor penguins appear to be flying kites. But attached to the kite strings are predator drones.

The four vets — Pellicano, KyrieJesse Albrecht and Daniel Donovan — wondered if it might be better if these wars, their reality and consequences, were more deeply felt and acknowledged at home. It is the detachment of ordinary Americans that concerns — and angers — the four.

In reviewing hundreds of American media photos from these recent wars, Kyrie noted that, “We do not see photos of our soldiers killing or being killed.” Reality has been air-brushed.

There is, to be sure, ritualistic honoring of “our heroes,” of “those who protect our freedom” everywhere these days. Few professional sports events, for example, seem to be without some such solemn and emotional moment when an attractive uniformed soldier receives the extended applause of the crowd or there is a patriotic theme or anthem. But such rituals do not tell Americans the real story of these wars, of their costs and their consequences.

For Pellicano, Albrecht, Kyrie and Donovan — the last three of them served in Iraq — the story is a different one than that of heroes who protect our freedom.

The story they know and tell in their work includes, in Albrecht’s words, “The moment you realize that the Army doesn’t really care about you.” Albrecht has created a series of sculptures inspired by Abu Ghraib, which occurred while he was in Iraq. Albrecht knew soldiers working in the prison. “You don’t get the real story. These guys you see pictured . . . under the hoods . . . they were brutal, murderous.”

Crosscut archive image.
"War Crock" by Jesse Albrecht draws on pictures of prisoners at Abu Ghraib

Their story also includes the largely fruitless efforts of the three who served in Iraq to make any sense at all of this long war and the deaths of so many friends and fellow solidiers. Some of their work memorializes such friends.

And it includes what happens after they, and others like them, come home and go through what Pellicano described as, for himself, a “very dark time.” Albrecht spoke of one desperate night after returning from Iraq, when he called the suicide hot-line looking for help. Before long a police swat team swarmed his home. Albrecht thought, “After everything in Iraq, I’m going to be killed by the police.”

The four men are part of a residency for artists who are combat veterans created by the LH project on a spectacular 40-acre property just outside of Joseph in Oregon’s Wallowa County. Once a logging and ranching community, Joseph has, in recent decades, has also become known for art and artists, particularly bronze sculpture.

The non-profit LH Project is the creation of Jacob Hasslacher, himself a ceramic artist. The residency program for veterans, now in its second year, offers a “family-feel,” and “an intimate, private setting for artists to nourish their creative processes,” amid a community of other veterans. On July 7 an exhibition of the work of Pellicano, Albrecht, Kyrie and Donovan will open at the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture.

There may be still another message in Pellicano’s grenade series: We are hiding from the truth about ourselves. We are in denial about a state of perpetual war and its human and social costs and consequences. We are in denial about terrible things that have happened and about the men and women who have experienced, and even sometimes done, terrible things.

If that’s true, then it isn’t just a darling little girl at her tea-party or a happy family of five at their dinner table who sit cluelessly beside a device that might explode at any moment: It is all of us. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.