Joe Ryan's Spring 2009 CCV Burlington English Composition class recently made a visit to the Combat Paper Project exhibition (Burlington City Arts Exhibition, February 20th through April 11th, 2009) with the express purpose of eliciting brief essays that combined several different styles of writing, from narration and description to process, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and persuasive. The following is a guest post from Professor Ryan regarding the project.
All types of student expression were encouraged, from those who supported the exhibit to those who questioned and opposed it. The purpose of this writing exercise was to empower the full range of student inquiry, questioning and response, not to direct it.
Twelve students completed the assignment, demonstrating compelling responses to the art, the process, the content, and the rational for the exhibition. Their writing ranged from being completely enthralled to wondering about the American flag being torn and used as art, to several veterans in the class who responded with their own personal experiences while in the military.
These two class veterans’ writings ranged from coming to terms by an African-American lesbian who was “outted” and discharged from the service, to a white male who had been in the service in the 1990s, saw no active service overseas, yet felt that the Combat Paper Project veterans had nothing to complain about since they had voluntarily enlisted and were not drafted.
All student responses were valid, personally felt, and written with full engagement in the experience, powerfully relating what they saw in the galleries and read online at the exhibition’s web site: combatpaper.org.
The following excerpts are from the five papers that students gave permission to quote. These quoted sections of student papers speak eloquently for the class and for themselves.
I. “These men and women took a negative part of their lives and transformed it into a beautiful, therapeutic experience….
“Veterans from all walks of life are able to stand side by side and experience such a cathartic transformation with one another, and begin to gain some meaning out of their own and one another’s experiences….
“My feelings, and the way in which I was affected by this exhibit, changed throughout the project. Initially, I was angered by the sight of the shredded flags and immediately took offence to it….As I read more, looked more into their website, and heard the interviews with the various soldiers, my outlook definitely changed. I realized that I will never experience what they did, and never feel the things that they felt…..I respect these veterans’ work and their vision. I am so thankful that I was shown the effect of war from their perspective.”
II. “Upon entering the Combat Paper Project exhibit with the class, I realized that this paper would mean more to me than I originally thought……in the spring of 2001 I joined the U.S. military……..all that I had to do and all that I accomplished in those seven months of training I will cherish forever; yet a sting of disappointment also lingers on. The U.S. military discharged me for being a homosexual.
“The discharge I received was honorable due to a very good record, and from that I take a bit of solace. For years I have had a uniform just sitting in the back of my closet; now, with the help of this project, I can put it to use.”
III. “I have recently had some closure to a long-time question of mine: How do returned American veterans resume their normal lives after enduring war conditions? After visiting an exhibition in Burlington, Vermont, called the Combat Paper Project, which was designed by veterans who served in Iraq, I slowly realized that there are veterans who have very little reservation about expressing to the public their experiences of the war…..Now these veterans at the Combat Paper Project have a mode of expression, claimed by those involved, to be a positive vehicle of mental release.
“In closing, this realization that not all soldiers stand blindly behind the government teaches me that there is indeed hope for a better way of life in this country through outspoken and direct action. The veterans at the Combat Paper Project prove that a ripple can be made in the American pond without hate, vengeance, and violence….I thank these veterans for coming out publicly with their experiences in war without censoring their art work and not feeling the need to package their art into an easy to swallow presentation. Without these veterans, people like myself, who have never been involved in the armed forces, would have very little comprehension of what war really entails.”
IV. “My eyes fell instantly on the image before me. Hanging from the ceiling, sunlight shone on this unique artwork: a white cross with a shredded American flag draped over the top and from each end hung an article of a military uniform: jacket, pants, boots. What made this uniform stand out were the patches of handmade paper pasted all over…..they actually transform their uniforms into art, through the process of paper making. These young veteran artists are coming to terms with what they have done and gone through, yet they come out strong, with the purpose of continuing to spread their ideas.
“By making their uniforms into pulp, veterans are able to transform them into paper, a therapeutic method of giving meaning to their experiences and uniforms. I think it is incredibly powerful to turn these symbols of combat that have felt blood, sweat, and tears into works of art that can profoundly affect others. So the process begins with life-altering experiences, moves to one of reflection, to creating, and then to impacting others.
“To see these young men and women using their freedom to speak out is quite admirable. I have great respect for them due to their willingness to confront their experiences, to give themselves a chance to truly heal and move on. Yet it is an honor that we, as part of their community, are invited to share in their healing process…..The idea of people coming together through art, expressing themselves and standing up for what they believe in is truly wonderful. It is a beautiful expression of our humanity.”
V. “I was amazed by every art piece that was displayed at the show, except for the torn up American flag. There was no true meaning for why that soldier decided to include that in his creation…..My favorite creation was titled Healing, which was the paper mache body mold of a female soldier. I loved how she wanted to stick out among the numerous male artists and show her own creativity.
The veterans spent time in this workshop to try and help cope and express their experiences while on active duty. The process encourages veterans to heal their memories through making paper art….It’s very important that soldiers get the opportunity and support of the public to incorporate their own personal and individual talents and abilities to build their creations of art for the project. The goal of the Combat Paper Project is to let war veterans of all ages and sexes create pieces of art as a way of coping with either positive or negative experiences while on active duty.”
I greatly appreciate the assistance of Amanda Sanfilippo, BCA gallery manager and assistant curator, in facilitating the class’s visit to this exhibition, leading the students through the galleries, and explaining the processes involved in both paper making and in the transformative power of these veterans’ art pieces.
CCV Burlington site
English Composition I
Spring semester 2009