By Karin Fleming
The soldier, dressed in his desert combat fatigues, stands at attention. His feet are together, arms stiffened at his side, with his chin up, eyes half hidden by a patrol cap. The image is the first in a series of six. The next five show the soldier cutting the uniform off his body with a pair of scissors, first the sleeves, then the pant legs, until all that remain is a crumpled pile of desert-cami fabric and combat boots at his feet.
The soldier is Drew Cameron, an Iraq war veteran and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the images are printed on combat paper.
Combat paper is made from military uniforms worn in a combat zone that are cut into tiny squares, beaten into a pulp and then pressed into paper sheets. This process of transforming the uniforms into paper, books, and works of art acts as a therapeutic way for veterans to reconcile their personal wartime experiences.
For Cameron, the act of cutting the fabric from his body was healing.
A lot of what I feel I went through was trying to bury the things in,” he says. “And the truth of it is that it was really manifesting in my life in a lot of different ways. And so that act became an act of release, of liberation, where I could have a different relationship with my military experience.”
“I definitely have positive associations and memories and relationships with what experiences I had when I was in that uniform as well as a lot of negative ones and overwhelmingly ones of betrayal and deceit,” says Cameron, who is one of the co-founders of the Combat Paper Project. “So being able to take ownership over it, I think that’s where I am interested and that’s the thing that’s been the most empowering.”
Drew Matott, co-founder of the Green Door Studio and Combat Paper Project, says the cross-country tours have influenced other veterans to begin their own papermaking studios from Virginia to Arizona.
“They’re setting up workshops and they’re running it,” he says. “So we don’t have proprietorship over this.” This has allowed the project to evolve from an outlet for artistic expression to one of activism. While the workshops are primarily for veterans, by hosting exhibits and discussions throughout the country the project is allowing civilians a glance into a side of war rarely seen: the inner struggles of a veteran who has returned home.
Not all the participants of the workshops are veterans from the current conflicts. The works of vets from Vietnam, Bosnia and even World War II can be found in the project.
One of the latest was the last weekend of September, when a small group of veterans and artists gathered in the papermaking studio of St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
During the weekend the group recreated dress uniforms, which gave the pulpy mix magnificent dark gray and red hues. Together the veterans/artists bounced ideas off each other: how to blend the different colored pulps, which images to use where, what colors of paint were the perfect combination, and where the most strategic place to embed a dog tag would be.
Cameron, with a dried layer of the mashed fabric clinging to his forearms, joked with one of the other participants: this was his new uniform.
The Combat Paper Project is currently hosting an exhibit at the Art Rage Gallery in Syracuse. The exhibit will run until November 1, and Saturday October 11, from 7 to 9 p.m., three veterans will present an evening of performances and readings about their experiences. For more information about the project, go to their Web site: www.combatpaper.org.
Karin Fleming is a senior journalism major. E-mail her at kflemin3[at]gmail.co