Power with art: Iraq vets come to Island
Nearly two dozen Iraq War veterans will arrive on the Island from the Northeast and Seattle, Wash., on Monday, July 21, for a remarkable event. They will spend the week involved in papermaking and writing workshops. The veterans will bring their uniforms with them, which, after being torn or cut up, will be transformed into paper to be used to record some of their experiences, in art and/or words. That process -- the Combat Papers Project - has become a healing ritual, a way to help put demons to rest. It has also become a movement spreading around the country, and next week it comes to the Vineyard.
The week culminates Saturday, July 26, at an event called Speak Truth to Power at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury where the vets will exhibit artwork, poetry, and paper they have handmade from their uniforms. "Iraq Paper Scissors," a film in progress by documentary filmmaker Sara Nesson about the Combat Papers Project, will be shown at 5 and 7 pm. There will also be music and a silent auction to raise funds for the completion of Ms. Nesson's film, which will be shown at future festivals and on TV.
After living on the Island for seven years, Ms. Nesson, a former editor at Galen Films in Vineyard Haven, moved to Burlington, Vt., in 2006 where she met Drew Cameron, the Iraq vet who first cut the uniform off his body and founded the Combat Paper Project. Mr. Cameron, 26, learned how to make paper from his father when he was a teenager. After he first cut his military uniform off his body, which he calls "an act of liberation," he traveled across the country "in search of the American dream." He settled in Burlington, where he met Mr. Matott, also a papermaker, and the two became fast friends. Mr. Cameron runs the papermaking workshop, The Green Door Studio, with Drew Matott. After the three got together, Ms. Nesson began work on her film.
"I brought back uniforms from two friends, a Marine and a Navy corpsmen, and started teaching other veterans how to make paper," Mr. Cameron says. "It's empowering being together and making paper as a group. It's about the ritual of the act, but also the artifact itself, which can make more art."
Photo courtesy of Sara Nesson
So far, veterans from World War II, Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq have donated their uniforms to the project.
Ms. Nesson's father, Bob Nesson, is a Boston-area documentarian whose frustration with his own work on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Iraq vets, gave her a wake-up call. She says, "My dad shamed me into realizing I was part of the problem." So she asked Mr. Cameron to collaborate with her. She wanted to help the group promote their work and educate the public about the veteran experience. "All of this -- cutting up uniforms, making paper, writing -- was healing. I saw transformation right before my eyes," she says.
Her camera becomes a conduit, a witness to the rite of passage these veterans are going through. Ms. Nesson wants to continue to film the veterans in New York state and northern California this fall, as they teach papermaking to disabled veterans and other vet groups.
Coincidentally, Sandra Bernat of Seastone Papers in West Tisbury met Mr. Cameron and Mr. Matott at a paper convention in Washington, D.C., last October. "They made the most phenomenal presentation," Ms. Bernat says. "It had us all in tears, and they got a standing ovation."
Soon after, Ms. Bernat learned in her yoga class that the Combat Paper project was considering coming to the Island. "I contacted them and told them they were welcome to use my studio," she says. The papermaking workshops will be held there, and although they are not open to the general public, local Iraq vets are encouraged to come and observe. "These are guys who are helping themselves. They are transferring their military camaraderie -- that kind of brotherhood and the power of sharing -- into this experience, the physical act of tearing their uniforms into shreds," Ms. Bernat says. A portfolio of Combat Paper's work is already on display at the Library of Congress.
The project also conducts Warrior Writers workshops in collaboration with Iraq Veterans Against the War. The Warrior Writers Project has published two anthologies, "Move Shoot and Communicate" and "Re-Making Sense," and two days of workshops will be offered to participating veterans on-Island. Vets coming to the Vineyard will camp on property in Chilmark provided for the purpose.
Photo courtesy of Sara Nesson
"We all suffer, not just the veterans," Ms. Nesson says, and she wants to share what the veterans have to offer with the Island community. "This is a very concrete way to support the Iraq veterans. They don't want to be thanked for their service, because they aren't proud of it. A sticker on your car saying 'Support our Troops' does nothing to help them." Buying their art, paper and writing, as well as helping Ms. Nesson finance her film will help.
Speak Truth to Power, Saturday, July 26, 3 to 8 pm. "Iraq Paper Scissors" will be shown at 5 and 7 pm. Richard Paradise, president of the Martha's Vineyard Film Society, will act as emcee, and a minimum donation of $20 is suggested. Donations can also be made directly through the website iraqpaperscissors.com.