Sunday, November 13, 2011

Celebrating Drew Cameron’s Healing Art

Drew Cameron
Remarks I gave at “Envisioning Tomorrow,” the Printmaking Center of New Jersey's awards dinner at the Somerville Elks Lodge, Bridgewater, NJ on November 12. The center honored Drew Cameron, the co-founder and co-director of Combat Paper, “a touring project with a compelling mission to use the healing power of art to transform the shattered lives of young veterans.”

I first encountered Drew Cameron three years ago at Rutgers University, where I was teaching a journalism class. He and several fellow Combat Papermakers were conducting workshops at the Brodsky Center in New Brunswick, turning military uniforms into posters and chapbooks of art and poetry, culminating in a jam-packed poetry reading. I went to the first workshop intending to spend a day—and ended up returning all week, intrigued by the interaction of vets, students, art instructors and passersby.

Though my intention was to observe and write about this fascinating project, I was pulled into the middle of it by Drew’s infectious invitation to join in. Presented the opportunity to cut up a desert warfare uniform, I found it very satisfying to disassemble an official symbol of military might. I wished I still had one of my Vietnam uniforms to slice up!

Many veterans have returned from war so angry, disillusioned, disgusted that they threw their uniforms away. After serving in Iraq, Drew decided to slice his war uniform off while filming his defiant act of performance art and turning the startling images into postcards and posters. This angry artwork was hand-printed on paper made of rag pulp from the shredded uniform. The genius of this idea to physically transform a war uniform into primary elements of papermaking art is that it is cathartic, as well as creative.

Through Drew’s networking and prodigious traveling, Combat Paper workshops and their thought-provoking art have appeared at scores of colleges and arts institutions across the USA and overseas. He has planted seeds of this cathartic art in many places and woven a new social fabric linking many war-torn hearts. As Drew notes on the Combat Paper 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.”
Another participant in the Rutgers workshops who also was deeply touched by the experience that Drew offers vets is Eli Wright. Eli has followed Drew’s path by serving as Co-Director of the Printmaking Center’s Combat Paper Program. As Eli said three years ago: “We’re all going through many changes in this project… I was a medic. I enlisted in the military to save lives, not take them. … 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.”

What an arts project—to inspire war veterans to live more creatively. Last year, I dropped by a Combat Paper workshop at the Printmaking Center and ended up hand-making, hand-printing and hand-stitching a chapbook of new poems I wrote, that were inspired by conversations with Drew and other Combat Papermakers. Last winter, I traveled to Buffalo, NY in a snowstorm to work with Drew on a poster for an arts event I was organizing. Here’s the result—a poster designed by Drew that highlights key words in my “Costs of War” poem by using an amazing woodcut design printed on recycled military uniforms.

For such hands-on, hands-down creative work that has inspired so many people through art, I’m honored to present Drew Cameron with PCNJ’s Erena Rae Award in Art and Social Justice!    

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