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Vets preserve memories of war with their own art

Saturday - 11/10/2012, 12:07pm  ET

By SHARON COHEN
AP National Writer

CHICAGO (AP) - The fallen Iraqi soldier's face is frozen in agony, his eyes and mouth wide open, his arms spread in surrender, his death in the Kuwaiti desert captured for posterity.

The sculpture's title: "Angel in the Desert."

Marcus Eriksen was a young Marine sergeant during the Gulf War, riding with a convoy to Kuwait City, when he encountered the Iraqi soldier. It was the first dead body he'd seen. The image was haunting, the experience unforgettable. But it took more than a decade before he started welding the memory into art.

Using a mannequin, an old uniform and plaster cast of his face and hands, Eriksen produced a mold and lined it with 70,000 steel ball bearings. He meticulously recreated the scene: the soldier on his back, knees bent. His insides exposed beneath his shirt. And swooping curves in the sand that suggested he'd moved his arms like a kid making snow angels.

This, says Eriksen, is not "an anti-war message. It's a reality of war message."

Every November, America honors its veterans with grand parades, speeches and tributes. But more than 350 veterans of Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan have turned to art to preserve more intimate and enduring memories of war, and more than 2,500 of their works have found a home at Chicago's National Veterans Art Museum.

The modest museum, which focused at first on Vietnam vets but has since expanded, includes paintings, prints, drawings, poetry, photos, sculpture, collages and video. Most of the vets are trained artists who've used their skills to illustrate harrowing life-and-death experiences, explore personal demons and celebrate fallen comrades. This is art that dredges up nightmares for some, and healing for others _ Eriksen, among them.

Now 45, he vividly remembers Feb. 24, 1991, when he and about a dozen other Marines stood around staring silently at the dead soldier sprawled 30 feet from his incinerated truck. "No one would cry," he says. "As a Marine, you just suck it up."

"Seeing him put a face on the suffering," Eriksen recalls. "I knew he was dead but his family didn't. ... All that death and destruction _ was it worth it? If you're going to commit young people to kill and be killed, you have to have a solid reason for it. And I don't think we had that."

Eriksen, now an environmental activist in California, began creating his sculpture shortly after the first bodies of U.S. troops started coming home from Iraq in 2003. It stirred up emotions of his days in uniform.

"It allowed me to remove the burden of my memories of Kuwait, of all the bodies, of the stench. ... Just making the sculpture ... would bring tons of sadness," Eriksen says. "I would think about that person and what happened every day. At some point, I thought, `Do I want to feel that way the rest of the day?' Eventually you tell yourself, as I did, no, I'm not going to beat myself up a millionth time. I'm done with that."

___

A man with a mustache, a fringe of brown hair and almost cartoon-like huge brown eyes looks out from the canvas. His lips are a barely defined pink oval. His expression is blank.

Title: Thousand Mile Stare.

More than 30 years passed before Helen White painted the picture of the officer she saw at the 67th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon, where she served as an orthopedic nurse. She doesn't remember his name, his face or much else beyond the fact that he'd arrived there after surviving a firefight that had killed almost everyone else. His eyes telegraphed his trauma.

"They were wide open, they were scanning, looking for safety and looking for danger," White says. "If you see the stare, it's not something you forget. ... The memories stay in my mind, even if I don't focus on them. And, of course, there's the mystery _ what happened, how did he recover, what impact did it have on his life."

Some people, she says, are disturbed by her painting; others think the raw image isn't even art.

White, who turns 65 on Tuesday, is retired from nursing and grappling with service-related PTSD, which she says has grown so intense that she has become agoraphobic. "Just going to the grocery store is a challenge," she says. "Sometimes I just stay in my house."

Painting has brought some solace, and also puts her in contact with a world beyond her Missouri home; she follows the works of artists who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and sees a commonality in their creations. "It gets back to the same song, just another verse," she says. "War is war."

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