A military uniform is akin to a soldier’s skin festooned with tattoos, displaying eye-grabbing patches and campaign ribbons, a feisty advertisement of where this soldier/ sailor/ airman/ marine has been. Imagine what it takes to deliberately tear one’s war uniform apart.
“It was liberating,” says Drew Cameron, a former Army artilleryman who served in Iraq in 2003 during the ongoing war’s initial phases. Cameron was describing the sensation of slicing his desert camouflage uniform into shreds last year and turning it into handmade paper festooned with a silk screened poem that says, in part:
You are not my enemy
my brother my sister,
but I have done something wrong
and perhaps I am now yours.
You are not my enemy
you never were.
You are a part of me
as I am with you.
Cameron, 26, is a cofounder of the Combat Paper Project, which offers a very creative take on war memories. The idea is to gather a group of vets and college students to shred military uniforms into handmade “combat paper”—which is then inscribed with images or messages designed by the vets. Some of this work is on display in a collection of art and writings by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, titled Warrior Writers: Re-making Sense and in limited edition chapbooks and art portfolios printed on handmade paper that contains visible threads of uniforms.
“The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. … Reclaiming that association of subordination, of warfare and service into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration,” says Cameron, who founded the project last year in Burlington, Vermont with fellow artist Drew Matott.
Cameron, Matott and a small band of fellow papermakers recently conducted a series of workshops and public events at Rutgers University, turning old uniforms into posters and pages for chapbooks of art and poetry. I went to the first of these workshops during the week of Veterans Day intending to spend a day and ended up returning all week, intrigued by the interaction of vets, students, art instructors and passersby.
“We’re making paper today out of veterans’ uniforms on Veterans Day, with real veterans,” Matott said to a curious circle of students and pedestrians who stopped near the entrance to Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in downtown New Brunswick, NJ, where a mobile papermaking work table had been set up. “There’s an opportunity of epic proportions for artists and activists to get together and work with veterans,” Matott, a professional papermaker and performance artist who teamed up with Cameron to take this idea around the country, said at another event.
“It’s phenomenal—marrying the medium to this message that’s not really talked about in our culture,” said Lisa Switalski, a papermaking specialist at Rutgers’ Judith K. and David J. Brodsky Center for Print and Paper, which hosted the Combat Paper workshops. “It’s a way of bringing people in, in a contemplative way.” Throughout the week, papermaking instructors, art students and veterans mingled in an informal sharing of ideas, skills and artistic visions. The veterans were invited to give art presentations and poetry readings in classes, at a prestigious papermaking center in New York City and at a peace concert on campus that drew hundreds of students.
“I was there to open the doors and to observe,” Anne McKeown, master papermaker at the Brodsky Center, wrote after hosting the Combat Paper participants. “The dance was theirs. It was slow and beautiful, fragile and spooky and heavy. To receive another gift of knowledge in understanding is what I received from the week. In healing one's self there can be calm and patience that is not in abundance in the northeastern United States world that I live in. How do these wounded and these ones in pain cause such deep peaceful calm while they search for their absolution? It is nothing I can touch, it is of the moment, maybe that is the gift of the revelation. I invited the encounter into my life, into the realm of the Brodsky Center Paper studio, I was touched and have the memory of the beauty of camaraderie and respect, of humor and fun and extreme sensitivity to the other's pain that does not need words.”
As a writer, I’m hard-pressed to explain this experience. Presented the opportunity to lop pieces off a desert warfare uniform, I found it very satisfying to disassemble with my hands and scissors an official symbol of military might. I wished I still had one of my Vietnam uniforms to slice up and throw into a papermaking mashing machine. Cutting pieces from a uniform donated by a more recent soldier reminded me how my transformation from soldier to civilian included creating with other veterans a poetry anthology titled Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. Putting to a new use a propaganda slogan of the war in Indochina, we pasted up the layout pages of poems and artwork by hand. It never occurred to us, though, to transform war uniforms into the paper our book was printed on.
Through Cameron and Matott’s efforts, Combat Paper workshops and their recycled works of art have appeared at numerous colleges and art galleries around the country in the past year. “Veterans of wars in Iraq, Viet Nam, World War II and Bosnia, have contributed so far,” Cameron wrote on the project’s web site. “From each new participant, I take a piece of fabric and mix it into the lineage pulp. This pulp is then mixed in with each new batch of pulp, so a little piece of each vet’s uniform is in every new piece of paper made.”
The biggest artistic impact may be on the vet who shed the uniform. “The Combat Paper Project gives vets a chance to fight back against their trauma — taking the horrors of war from the battlefield into the studio, sharing their experiences with other veterans, and remaking those experiences into something entirely new,” writer Julia Rappaport noted in a perceptive news report in the Boston Phoenix (“Scars & Stripes,” 9/25/08).
At the Rutgers’ workshop, a young Army veteran from Pennsylvania named Jen enthusiastically poured various colors of mashed up uniform fibers into a large papermaking bin to make a poster-size display of her mood: black, gray and blue swirls on a field of red. “It’s good to be with people where I don’t have to explain why I’m angry,” she said. Trying to convey why a young woman could be so bitter, she contributed to the Warrior Writers anthology, which noted that Jennifer Pacanowski served with a medical evacuation unit for a year in Iraq. “I have a huge gaping hole in my soul,” she wrote in a poem titled “Whose Soul Is That?”—which concluded with these chilling lines:
Emptiness is all you find where her loving soul used to be
Anger and hatred is now her contagious disease
Don’t ever look into her eyes
“We’re very good at constructing walls,” Cameron said of American culture during a Combat Paper Project presentation at Dieu Donne, a papermaking center in New York City. “Walls on our borders—or a wall in Baghdad where people used to come and shop. A large part of what we do with this project is tearing down walls, deconstructing walls.”
“We’re all going through many changes in this project,” added Eli Wright, a 27-year-old Army veteran from Colorado. “I was a medic. I enlisted in the military to save lives, not take them. … So the first friend I made in Iraq was confusion. In a detention center, I witnessed a fellow medic beat a prisoner. And I made friends with anger that night. … I made my third friend coming home, and that was shame. … I only had these three friends until I discovered this project. I finally found some new friends. … This project saves lives, it gives us direction—to find we can build bridges and tear down those walls and remake sense of our lives.”
Combat Paper art selections will be displayed at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions Annual Exhibition from Dec. 17 to Jan. 23 at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, 33 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, NJ. Closing reception, which is open to the public, is Thursday, January 22 from 3 to 7 pm. For further information: 732-932-2222 Ext. 838.
For more information on Combat Paper Project: http://www.combatpaper.org/index.html