Through Sculptures and Paintings, Veterans Share Their Stories
By Paul X. Rutz
I spent 2014 painting portraits of combat veterans. Each veteran posed live in the studio for several weeks while my collaborator, Christopher Wagner, sculpted his own impressions of our models in clay. We titled the show “Between Here and There.”
The intent was to call attention to the distance between two artists’ takes on a subject and to remind viewers that veterans often feel stuck between home and the battlefield.
When I describe this work, people often assume the project was about healing, but that wasn’t the goal. We aren’t therapists. Our job was to create compelling images and to give our viewers a sense of what it’s like to connect with people they don’t know. We aimed to depict combat veterans not as heroic or broken archetypes, but as individuals with their own tastes and biases. Spending a lot of time together was essential. We insisted everyone pose live, for up to 40 hours per portrait, while Chris and I worked simultaneously.
A year later, I asked our veterans what they took away from the experience. A couple of our models saw the circumstance itself as therapeutic. Ron Baker, who walked point for an infantry squad in Vietnam, is still a wiry, lean squash player with piercing eyes. He remains marked by the traumatic stress of war. After years of therapy through the VA, he said it still helps to talk to new people about Vietnam.
“The combat veteran, the more he talks about experiences that he had or she had, it’s like each time he or she talks about that, that pop-off valve lets some of the steam out,” he said. “Talking about it … doesn’t make it go completely away, but it softens its hold of you.”
He said knowing that we cared to ask felt therapeutic in itself. It mattered to him that we respected his experiences. However, most of our models said they didn’t seek a therapeutic experience from us. They wanted other things from their hours in the studio.
From left, painter Paul X. Rutz and sculptor Christopher Wagner work on their two-media portrait of Alisha Hamel. The series, titled “Between Here and There,” has been shown in various locations throughout the Pacific Northwest, including at the Oregon Military Museum.
World War II veteran Bill Keys turned 90 while posing for his two-media portrait at his home in Portland, Oregon, in August 2014.
One senior enlisted soldier, who asked not to be named because he’s still on active duty and worries his views may appear controversial, said special services and attention like counseling and housing assistance are vital for those who need it, but he doesn’t see himself as part of that group.
“Just because you’ve deployed doesn’t mean you come back damaged, and to say so is missing the point,” he said.
The combat veteran, the more he talks about experiences that he had or she had, it’s like each time he or she talks about that, that pop-off valve lets some of the steam out,” said Ron Baker, who walked point for an infantry squad in Vietnam. “Talking about it … doesn’t make it go completely away, but it softens its hold of you.
For him, serving in combat is not just about serving the country. It’s also a springboard into the rest of life.
“Not that bad things can’t and don’t happen. I lost one of my best friends over there, but that’s not a terminally or ultimately damaging thing that happened to me.” He said he believes the majority of combat veterans share that point of view.
“The challenge for the veteran,” he said, “is, once you get out of service, you’re still an American. It is still your job to make sure you’re contributing.”
He said he wants veterans to act as examples of quiet, professional service to the community after leaving the military. “It is our job to go back and actively reconnect with the community. If posing for a painting, or standing there for hours while I was sculpted, could in any way reconnect me to the community … that I live in, that’s what it should be about.”
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alisha Hamel, who deployed to Iraq in 1990 and posed for her portrait with a soccer ball, said she got involved for two reasons. She felt the need to remind people of her part in an overshadowed war, and she wanted to show there are many sides to every veteran. “The Desert Storm veterans feel a bit forgotten with the very long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “I am proud that our war was one of the first where women were … deployed in significant numbers.” But her service isn’t her whole story.
“My passion is soccer. I met my husband playing soccer, both my kids play soccer and I still play,” she said. “Posing tells the story that I am not just military. I have another significant part of myself.”
Retired Marine Major Nicholas Hurndon suffered for his portrait, hanging upside down from gymnastic rings we bolted to the ceiling of the studio. He chalked his hands, rolled into an inverted pose on the rings and held on for a couple minutes. Hurndon unwound and repeated the effort for three hours, twice a week. During the moments between, we talked about whatever came up.
“For me, it was the first time talking openly about some of my experiences in Iraq with someone other than those I served with,” he said. “While not a direct interview, the process of meeting Paul and Chris and developing a friendship through art, or the process of making art, made the discussion easy and unforced,” he said.
“The idea of using some medium as an indirect bridge between the veteran and civilian worlds may not be a new idea, but it was new for me, and I walked away believing that it was effective.”
Hurndon had just moved to Portland, Oregon, and he said the project helped him bond with his new surroundings. “I think that I’ve made numerous friends in doing this and it helped make me more a part of the Portland community.”
We couldn’t have planned that outcome, but it was an honor to be a part of it.
—Paul X. Rutz is a figurative painter in Portland, Oregon. Images of his work, as well as stories from the veterans who posed for this portrait series, can be found at paulrutz.com. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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