Friday, October 25, 2013

Art Works

"Losing It," water color by Jan Barry

In my continuing quest for self-improvement, I’ve taken up delving into “oh crap!” moments as I dabble with learning to paint in water colors.

Thus, I mutter “oh crap!” whenever I mess up in my late-stage foray into painting, which outburst echoes—and hopefully draws some of the sting from—far more unsettling “oh crap!” moments in life.

Recently, I’ve managed to do an art piece on an incident that happened last spring. For reasons that will become evident, I’ve titled this work “Losing It.”

For a couple-three years now, I’ve joined other veterans as volunteers staffing tables in the “Activist Area” at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival music festival at Croton Point Park, NY. This year, several of us decided to display a large array of Combat Paper art works on just about every nook and cranny of a street festival-type tent sheltering a folding table covered with more art work.

The idea was to raise public awareness, funds and support for the Combat Paper Project, which provides workshops at which military veterans turn old uniforms into hand-made paper, to which art is applied that addresses deep-seated emotions about war-time and postwar experiences.

On the second afternoon of the festival, after others in the group had drifted off to rest, catch some music or head home, a thunderstorm cloud rose just across the Hudson River. Abruptly, a fierce wind swirled across the water, scattering Combat Paper pieces into wet grass and mud puddles from a previous rainstorm.

I felt overwhelmed by hostile weather, trying to save what seemed like an endangered enclave of artists’ works. “Oh crap!” was the mildest of the volley of four-letter words I yowled.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Vietnam Blues

 Lem Genovese returned from Vietnam with two burning passions—playing guitar and chasing elusive faces of the war.

“My VA counselor asked me what I hoped to accomplish writing this book,” Genovese notes in his 550-plus-page self-published memoir, Tunesmith Chronicles: A Musical History Tour. “I gave him a simple answer. ‘To get it right…’

“The US involvement during the Indochina Cultural Exchange Program has caused enough dissention, derision, confusion and damage. As a veteran I have seen both sides of that polarizing experience and like [Ulysses S] Grant, long to see the sense of hostilities subside into a mutual understanding of what is truly needed to learn valuable lessons from a bitter war to enable this nation to approach that more ‘perfect UNION.’”

Genovese’s quest put him on the road roaming the country as a hard-strumming bard of Vietnam veteran blues, as a crusty college student trying to pin down the unsettling role of Vietnam vets in American society, and as an old-timer National Guard medic trying to protect less experienced soldiers in the 1991 Gulf War.

He still harbors a white phosphorus-hot anger about a lot of things he encountered in war zones in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, as well as stateside. And each outrageous incident or moral injury is buttressed by pages of deeply researched background information—ranging from Agent Orange to post-traumatic stress disorder, war crimes to billion-dollar wastage of military equipment.

“Frankly, after being exposed to dioxin in the Mekong Delta, the toxic cocktails in Desert Storm and 40 years of bad luck, the author relishes this opportunity to follow in the large footsteps of Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell in one regard, sacrificing what little reputation this particular retired Army/Guard staff sergeant field medic has left … to better protect this nation’s future,” he writes in introduction to a section in which he lambastes “war profiteers” with more than 60 pages of examples.       

Nearly lost amid his furious, fulminating diatribes is a story about a soldier from Des Moines, Iowa, who found salvation in making music. “After returning to Iowa from my 13 month tour of duty in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, MUSIC was my form of therapy and has kept me from going off the deep end (drugs, alcohol and suicide) many times in the ensuing years,” he states deep in this massive memoir.

As he notes more succinctly on his Yankee Medic Records website, Lem Genovese’s aim is “to be a musical bridge that promotes compassion, healing and understanding.”

For more information:


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Heart of Art

"Lost in Vietnam" by Jan Barry

Recently, I took up painting. It was an awkward feeling. I can’t draw a straight line. I dropped by a Vet Center art workshop during the summer to see what some friends were doing, and the woman running the program handed me a bag of paints and brushes.

The other guys—mainly retiree Vietnam vets and a quiet young fella who did combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq—were working seriously amid light-hearted banter on a wide assortment of art work. What could I do? I spent several Tuesday morning sessions doodling on an idea that didn’t work out. Meanwhile, the other guys were lining the main hallway at the Vet Center in an office park in Secaucus, NJ with arresting paintings of war scenes, nightmares, vibrant city scenes and soothing landscapes.

I’m a writer. I can paint with poetry. I once lived with a highly accomplished artist. But I was stymied as to what to do with an artist brush.

But watching the other vets encourage each other to try various media—pencil sketches, charcoal drawings, acrylic paint, water colors—an idea emerged to convey the vastness of the jungle-covered mountains in Vietnam and depict how hard it was to find a plane when it crashed in such terrain.

I found water colors worked for what I had in mind, because I could paint over my mistakes as I layered in peaks and ridges and swirls of monsoon rain in a rough facsimile of this corner of the world I haven’t seen in nearly 50 years. That intense focus brought back vivid memories of being a radio specialist in an Army aviation unit that lost planes and aircrews in those mountains.

Meanwhile, the other guys were turning out a growing gallery of art works that caught the attention of other vets coming to the Vet Center for therapy appointments. One of those vets talked with someone who knew someone who runs an art gallery. And before long, an art show was being organized at the Brennan Gallery in the Justice William J. Brennan Court House in Jersey City, NJ.

The “War & Peace: Art by Military Veterans” exhibition opened this week in the rotunda of the historic court house. Lawyers striding through between courtroom rounds stopped to take a look. Sheriff’’s officers and janitors dropped by to check it out—and then proudly pointed out to vets the stunning murals of historic figures in the Hudson River city’s early years displayed on corridor walls circling the marble columned rotunda.

Guided by Angela Maio, a family therapist at the Secaucus Vet Center, participants in the vets’ art workshop explored a variety of media to probe, uncover and convey hard-to-express experiences.

“After many years of doing talk therapy with veterans, I realized that another more powerful outlet was needed.” Maio said in a news release statement. “The ‘Paint Your Pain’ Art Group has had a healing cathartic effect on participants’ combat stressors.  Several members have expressed the feeling of finally finding closure to their nightmares and to the Vietnam War.” 

One of the most stunning works is a painting of a “Point Man” on patrol raising his arm, signaling other GIs (and viewers) to “follow me” into a murky mist in a jungle clearing. The artist, Barry Jensen, a retired carpenter who jotted in a sketchbook during the war, was wounded while serving with a long range reconnaissance patrol unit in Vietnam.

One of the most creative commentaries on what the art workshops mean to these men is a water color titled “Forty-Five Years Later,” by Joe Lis, a combat infantryman and retired nurse. It shows several vets working on art pieces under the hovering blades of a military helicopter, from which one vet is set to jump waving a paint brush, rather than a rifle.    

"Forty-Five Years Later" by Joe Lis

Other artists with works on display include Jim Fallon, Michael Eckstein, Frank Wagner, Tom Sears, Walt Nygard, and Wilson Montaleza. Montaleza served in the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. The other vets served in Vietnam in the Army or Marines.

For more information: