As a writer, I’ve always been incredibly jealous of people who are talented in the visual arts. That old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words? It’s totally true. Plus, people are more likely to stop for a few seconds to look at a photo or painting or drawing than they are to actually read a thousand-word article. This is especially true in my line of work, writing for a magazine known for its (NSFW) photos, which I’m sure garner a lot more looks than all the words I write on the pages between the photos. So, of course, after my article about veteran writers, it seemed only natural to follow it up with a story about veteran artists.
I don’t quite remember how I first learned about the Combat Paper Project, but I know that right after I heard about it, I couldn’t stop hearing about it. Several people I interviewed for my article on Warrior Writers mentioned it, and then it was mentioned again in the documentary Poster Girl (which you can watch on Netflix), and, in fact, there was a separate short documentary about the project, Iraq Paper Scissors, in the DVD bonus features of that film. Because, of course. It was clearly the universe’s way of telling me what I should write about next.
When I started reading up on the program and learning more about it, one of the first thoughts I had was, “This is f*ckin’ cool!” Because it is. But I also noticed that a lot of the names mentioned in other articles about Combat Paper were familiar to me from reading about veteran activists over the years. So I was doubly excited to get to work on the story. I’d get to pick the brains of talented artists, and talk to people whom I’d been reading about for the past couple of years.
A lot of the talk about the Combat Paper Project was about the cathartic aspect of it, and how it helps people heal. But what I thought was especially awesome about it was how it was producing unique works of art. While some of the men and women who participate do so for more emotional reasons, the fact is, a lot of the participants are incredibly talented artists, which I think gets overlooked a lot. Most stories about veterans’ groups like this one get bogged down by talk of PTSD and military sexual trauma and all the other things that go wrong that make people turn to art to heal. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Art is healing, both for the artist and, at times, for the viewer. But that’s not the whole story.
One of the artists I interviewed, Eli Wright, who helps lead the Combat Paper workshops at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, told me that he wondered if people would have considered him an artist if he weren’t a veteran. He’s also not sure he really considers himself an artist because that’s not how he makes his living. The work he’s most known for is a piece called “Open Wound,” which can easily be seen as a statement about his post-war feelings, and he says that more subtle pieces don’t get the kind of attention “Open Wound” does, even though some of them may be better. Then there’s Jesse Albrecht, who has no trouble calling himself an artist. He has his MFA, shows his work frequently in workshop and gallery settings, and has taught art at the college level. His work with Combat Paper is more about the art than anything else.
The cathartic aspects of art shouldn’t be entirely ignored, however. Drew Matott, who helped start the Combat Paper Project, started the Peace Paper Project not too long ago, which focuses on helping people heal from traumatic events through art. Veteran artist Jon Turner, who also worked with Combat Paper for several years, helps teach the Peace Paper veterans’ workshops. The focus there is more on the healing aspects of the artistic process, though they certainly produce some beautiful art, too.
Whether you prefer to look at the created pieces as art or as a means of finding peace, it’s worth checking out the art and artists who make up the Combat Paper Project. You can see more of their art here and here, and you can find out their workshop schedules here and here. And you can check out the Peace Paper Project here. And, of course, you can read my article about the Combat Paper Project, which appeared in the March 2014 issue of Penthouse, by clicking right over here.