For many military veterans, it can take years, even decades, to deal with the emotional trauma incurred during their service.
A new program is helping them put their experiences into words and down on paper. Not just any paper - these sheets are made from their old military fatigues.
Theresa Ash and Tim Rooney pull sheets of paper at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts
The workshop, which takes place at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, was inspired by the work of Drew Matott and Drew Cameron, who brought their "Combat Paper Project" on tour to the Twin Cities back in the fall of 2009.
Over the past several weeks, a half-dozen veterans of the first Gulf and Vietnam wars cut their uniforms down into small squares, placed them in what's called a "beater" with water and literally beat the fatigues to a pulp.
Layne Beckman served as a combat flight nurse in the first Gulf war. She said cutting up such a potent souvenir of her service was an emotional experience:
The first couple of cuts were really hard, but after that it was pretty therapeutic. Ripping them up was powerful. Then making the paper was kind of calming when I saw these perfect sheets come out. I can only describe it as a really sweet moment.
Former combat flight nurse Layne Beckman shows off the two journals she's made with her old fatigue pants.
This papermaking workshop is just one of several classes offered by Veterans in the Arts, which collaborates with Twin Cities arts institutions such as the MCBA, Northern Clay Center, Highpoint Center for Printmaking and The Playwrights' Center.
Veterans in the Arts President Suzanne Asher (U.S. Air Force, 1979-1983) says all military veterans residing in Minnesota qualify to participate in the program, although classes are currently limited to the Twin Cities metro area.
We want to make use of the highest quality studio arts experiences so that the veteran is technically and intellectually supported in ways that are commensurate with the depth of their personal experiences.
Asher says the long term goal is to have a community of veterans doing art, supporting one another and hosting an annual exhibition.
From military uniform to handmade paper
Theresa Ash and her husband Michael both served in the military, as did their daughter Amanda and son Jake. The parents have used the workshop to make paper from each of their four uniforms. Ash says she and her daughter never saw combat, but her husband and son did. When asked how that affects the quality of the paper, she responds, "On a physical or an emotional level?"
On a physical level it's neither here nor there - it doesn't matter to me. But when I look at the paper that came from son Jake's uniform - a uniform he was wearing when he saved a Canadian solider... I'm so protective of that paper. The blood, sweat, tears.. the oil and the sand - it's still in there. You just don't get that out.
Chante Wolf agrees. A veteran of the Air Force, she says: "If you want to see me go ballistic - mess with my paper."
Wolf sits on the board of Veterans in the Arts, and is participating in the "Combat Paper" course for the second time. "It's cheaper than therapy," she quips.
There is a magical transformation and healing that takes place. It doesn't happen overnight or when the project is done, but just the beginning of a process of healing and reconciliation, and sharing.
I believe it is through the sharing with others that the deepest part of the healing and reconciliation can take place. It is through the stories of others that we learn, and hopefully change a direction with our own lives.
One of Layne Beckman's finished journals
Most of the veterans in this class are using their paper to create journals, in which they will write about their experiences in the military, in combat and here at home. For Layne Beckman, it's an exciting time.
I haven't told my story. It's only in the past year I've been able to start talking about it.
As for Theresa Ash, she says her family's journals will be "history books that politicians can't rewrite."
While the course is obviously popular with the veterans who have participated in it, enrollment in the overall program hasn't been that high. Some think it may be due to a lack of awareness of the program, which is relatively new and funded by Minnesota's Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment.
Or perhaps it's a matter of people being ready to confront and process the lasting impact of their service. The veterans in this class served 20 years ago or more, yet for many of them the wounds are still fresh.
In "American Family" a woman returns to the playground where she last saw her mother, searching for the life she might have had. It's a memory play about mixed marriage in an era when such unions were legal, but not really condoned. This new work by Twin Cities playwright Carlyle Brown runs through April 7 at Park Square Theatre.
Again we have an instance of "did these critics watch the same show?" For some the first act shone while the second act lagged, but another claims just the opposite.
They do seem to agree that this premiere is a bit rough, but with lots to commend.
Greta Oglesby and Michael Terrell Brown in "American Family" at Park Square Theatre
We've all been to those plays -- the ones that sneak up after intermission and suddenly explode in a gripping dramatic scenario that stabs you in the heart. Playwright Carlyle Brown has managed that dynamic in "American Family..." Directed by Marion McClinton, the drama takes time to lay down an expository first act and then zeroes in with a focused intensity on a singular and fraught relationship. By show's end, we could scarcely care more for two people.
Noel Raymond and Gavin Lawrence in American Family at Park Square Theatre
The difficulty with a play powered by a forbidden relationship is that the attraction between the two characters has to be stronger than the forces that keep them apart. The action of the play says that it is, but the chemistry happening between Raymond and Lawrence says that it wasn't.
Megan Fisher and Tracey Maloney as the younger and older Mary Ellen in "American Family" at Park Square Theatre
Megan Fischer, who plays Mary Ellen, also charms the audience with her portrayal of an innocent young white girl caught in the middle of a racial vortex. She is the best thing about the production - conveying love, vulnerability, fear and heartbreak with a sweet face and a disarming southern drawl.
Although the play is meant to end on hope, the path there feels too phony to make the ending work - even when Fischer comes back onstage for a moment of charm.
Gavin Lawrence and Carlyle Brown in "American Family" at Park Square Theatre
"American Family" is an ambitious play, a laudable and moving production, even if it's not a particularly subtle one... Quibbles aside, "American Family" is a play whose merits more than compensate for this unevenness. In an essay published with the program, Brown is quoted as saying, "This is a new kind of play for me. I've never written a play with a female central character. And I'm exploring the American identity from an African-American perspective, but the central character is white .... I thought it would resonate with [the Park Square] audience ... [because] we can better look at issues when we can see ourselves on stage."
Have you seen "American Family?" If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.
All photos courtesy Park Square Theatre