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The power in their pain

Iraq war veterans create art to protest

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nan Levinson
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2008

"Hi ho, rock 'n' roll, grab your weapon, get ready to roll," sings Drew Cameron, a 26-year-old artist and Iraq veteran, as he loosens the tie on his Army dress uniform.

" 'Cause you will be going to war," he continues in a steady tenor, pulling dog tags from under his shirt.

"So early, too early, too early in the morning." He jerks the chain from his neck, holds the tags at arm's length, and drops them to the floor. They clink as he walks off stage.

"Cadence," Cameron's brief performance, follows "I am who survived forgive me," a bruising spoken-word piece delivered by Aaron Hughes, 26, another artist-activist-veteran, at the Green Door Studio in Burlington, Vt.

Cameron and Hughes, members of the antiwar organization Iraq Veterans Against the War, are among a small but growing number of American vets who are using their experiences in Iraq to explore the interrelation of art and political resistance. Their performances last April, captured in a video by Justin Francese, are on view in "Experiencing the War in Iraq," a multimedia exhibit of artwork from both military and civilian perspectives that will be at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River through May 3.

While soldiers have long written about - and against - war, these young men have found their own approach. Vivid, unsettling, and YouTube-anointed, their work is also mostly unpolemical, a surprise, given the charged subject matter.

Hughes and Cameron are documenting their transition from soldiers to resisters. Their intent, they say, is to reimagine the myths, images, and assumptions that brought them and their cohorts to this point; their method is to pose questions, not supply ready-made answers.

"I'm using creative processes to break down the walls that allow us to dehumanize one another," says Hughes.

Papermaking as catharsis
One of Cameron's projects, "Combat Paper," literally involves breaking down material used in wartime.

Cameron learned papermaking from his father when he was a teenager in Iowa and returned to it a few years ago after he moved to Vermont and took a workshop with Drew Matott, a performance artist and papermaker at the Green Door Studio. In the years between, Cameron joined the Army, spent eight months with the 75th artillery in Iraq (where he made sergeant), returned to the States, enlisted in the National Guard, and enrolled at the University of Vermont to study forestry. Meanwhile, his belief in the rightness of the military's mission in Iraq turned sour, while the appeal of papermaking soared.

"I obsessively made blank paper. It was cathartic," Cameron says by phone from Burlington, where he now lives.

One day, Cameron put on his Army uniform for the first time since he left the military and began to cut it off his body. "My heart started beating fast," he reports. "It felt both wrong and liberating. I started ripping it off. The purpose was to make a complete transformation."

A friend took photographs, which Cameron and Matott, his collaborator, later used for a series of prints. One print is in the exhibit at the Narrows Center; a portfolio of six can be found in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum.

Somewhere along the way, it occurred to Cameron and Matott to turn the uniform into paper, so on Veterans Day last year, Cameron gathered seven young veterans at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., where they cut a uniform (donated by a Marine who had worn it in Iraq) into small pieces, cooked it, beat it into pulp, and formed it into sheets of artist-quality paper.

Since then, there have been nine Combat Paper workshops around the country for veterans of all wars. And the result, in addition to YouTube videos of the workshops, are piles of paper - some creamy, some speckled, some used for printmaking, others for books or scrapbooks, and all meant to honor the men and women fighting a war these veterans no longer believe in.

Turning a discarded battle uniform into pristine sheets of paper is a kind of reclamation, Cameron says. "It's a chance for individuals to remake their relationship with their stories, their history, their experiences," he explains. "For me it definitely has been an empowering and healing experience, but it also is very much my method of sharing my sentiment as a veteran that's against the war."

Reality vs. spectacle
Hughes, now a graduate student at Northeastern University, creates drawings, paintings, and simple but arresting events that he stages in public places and categorizes as "spectacle." All relate to what he did and saw in Iraq. "I qualify everything in the States as a spectacle and everything in Iraq as real," he says by phone from Chicago.

In the fall of 2006, two years after he returned home, Hughes walked to the middle of a busy intersection in Champaign, Ill., to prop up a signboard that read: "I am an Iraq War Veteran. I am guilty. I am alone. I am drawing for peace." Moving crablike over the road, he chalked a picture of a bird perched on barbed wire, while pedestrians and vehicles were forced to navigate around him.

In a video, viewable on his website, aarhughes.org, people walk past, giving at most a glance over their shoulders, as if unsure what - or whether - they should be noticing. That seems right to Hughes, who says his goal is to jar people out of the everyday. The typical tools of activism, such as antiwar marches, are predictable efforts that fit neatly into a category in our minds labeled "protest," he says: We know what to make of them, so they're easy to dismiss. He is after something more surprising, something that creates a kind of mental itch. "That's exactly what I'd like people to do," he says. "Simply stop - for a moment of thought, of reflection."

Tall and rangy, his face a map of sincerity, Hughes joined the Illinois National Guard out of high school in 2000 and rose to the rank of sergeant. He could not have imagined when he enlisted that he would spend more than a year hauling supplies all over Iraq. "At first it seemed like liberation, then occupation," he reports. "I'm generalizing, but I think most people don't go there to kill people, but that ends up being what you do."

As with Cameron, Hughes's rejection of the US intervention in Iraq and his role in it was a gradual and painful process. "I went to college set to be a designer. I wanted to design the coolest stuff and make lots of money," he says. "Then I got deployed and I lived with my sleeping bag and rucksack and a couple of books." Now studying art theory and practice, he continues to grapple with his actions.

"Maybe I can find ways to . . . forgive myself," he says, his voice faltering for the first time.

Last summer, Hughes did a monthlong project in New York City, in which he made drawings linking the geometric designs that appear in Manhattan's pavement and have roots in ancient Babylon with the destruction of contemporary Babylon - that is, Iraq. Alongside, he chalked the message, "Beware of poetic terrorism. It may make you think." The project was designed to be temporary, but photographs can be seen at drawingforpeace.org/public. Hughes and Cameron's work also appears in "Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense," a collection of writing and art by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Like much of Hughes's work, "Poetic Terrorism" required a fair amount of explication, which the artist willingly supplies. "We're disconnected not only from the war; we're disconnected from each other," he says. "We've built up all these cultural barriers and somehow we've got to poke through them. That's what I'm trying to do."

"Experiencing the War in Iraq" is at the Narrows Center for the Arts, 16 Anawam St., Fall River, through May 3. 508-324-1926, ncfta.org

Drew Cameron's "Combat Paper" work is at Boston Athenaeum, viewable by appointment (617-227-0270) and at the Green Door Studio, 18 Howard St., Burlington, Vt., greendoorstudio.net.

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