Worn History: Gabrielle Dunkley On The Combat Paper Exhibit

Post by Gabrielle Dunkley, Stamp Gallery of Art
Piece by piece, gallery attendants and curators had the rare opportunity to hold life stories in their hands. The same uniforms soldiers wore in combat, remnants of blood, sweat, and phantasmic horrors still palpable in the fabric, were repurposed as a means for finally explaining to their sons,

daughters, husbands, and wives, what it was really like out there. A narrative of growth, reconciliation, catharsis, and healing are all boldly explored in this haunting exhibit. Visitors ruminated over startling images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. superimposed over a portrait of Saddam Hussein, eerily glimmering portraits of soldiers made from gunpowder and glue, a seemingly anonymous bystander staring pensively into viewers’ eyes, and probing poems about soldiers responding to the question, “honey, how was your day at work?” among many others.

The intensity lingered throughout the opening reception. We collectively marveled at how these challenging and visceral topics were translated through the veterans’ original works of art — finally communicating to civilians the multitudes of humanity soldiers experience. Visitors’ reactions span from emotionally charged to distant reverence. Among the reactions came a simple question:

“Why did they use their uniforms?”

The Combat Paper Project is a workshop that allows veterans to utilize their uniforms as a vessel for communicating their experiences of war through a process of cutting up the fabric, beating it into a pulp, and forming them into sheets of paper. The paper is then utilized as a canvas for art.

“As a civilian, I think the biggest surprise for me is what happens when the veterans begin to cut their uniforms and pulp the […] fabric,” said Tara Tappert, The Combat Paper Project curator and researcher. “That process of transforming the uniform into paper often begins a flow of conversation about their wartime experiences wearing that uniform.”

Visitors had mixed reactions after discovering the canvases for the art were soldiers’ uniforms. Many expressed that the fabric itself is a powerful statement that enhances the purpose of the art. Others questioned if the gallery attendants, organizers, and curators of the exhibit considered it a gesture of disrespect. We see this exhibit as a way for soldiers to finally be heard, if not understood, in a universal medium. Telling these stories on the uniforms serves as an homage to the veterans’ service.

What use would art serve if not for the purpose of allowing artist and patron to have a conversation graphically since they cannot speak face to face? For veterans, the interpretations aren’t as important as the cathartic act of producing art. Many art therapy workshops hosted locally and internationally function mainly as means for healing more so than the sheer purpose of making pretty pictures.

“I believe that art making has the power to heal,” says Tappert. “It can be about giving voice or movement […] to deeply felt experiences through every imaginable form of storytelling.”

The Combat Paper Project exhibit is free and open to the public at the Stamp Gallery of Art at the University of Maryland from November 1st through December 15th. To learn more about Combat Paper,  visit the website http://www.combatpaper.org.

Stay curious,

Gabrielle A. Dunkley



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