When Dylan Spencer Kenney married a veteran, it opened up a new perspective for her. “I was born and raised in Greenwich Village,” said Ms. Kenney. “I spent many years of my childhood protesting for peace. I never saw myself understanding the military culture the way I do now through my love for Kevin [Capt. Kevin MacDevette, USMC, Afghanistan 2008-2012].”
This awakening has led Kenney to create a series of photo montages that she has titled “My Island Veterans.” A grouping of her collaged images of Island vets is currently hanging at the West Tisbury library, where she hopes to inspire others to a deeper understanding of the people who have served their country.
“Honoring veterans through art allows empathy regardless of political background toward soldiers,” she writes in the artist’s statement that accompanies the exhibit.
“I’ve maintained my pro-peace stance while recognizing my own biases. It was something I was not aware of as a liberal. I’m letting go of my own stereotypes of what military culture is.”
Kenney selected a handful of veterans for her series, including two people whom she holds in high esteem for providing important resources for Island vets.
Tom Bennett is the associate executive director and human rights officer for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. He founded that organization’s Veterans Outreach Program, and has been instrumental in providing counseling service to vets, like Kenney’s husband, who have had to deal with the effects of PTSD.
Jo Ann Murphy is the veterans agent for Dukes County, serving Island vets as an advocate and in a number of other capacities.
“These two pillars represent the resources available for all Island veterans,” said Kenney. “Their selflessness has inspired me.”
The other 15 subjects included in the series range in age from mid-30s to 90s, and represent vets from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and more recent military engagements.
“I reached out to veterans on the Island, and the response was wonderful,” said Kenney. “The fact that the exhibit is in the library is appropriate. Libraries have always maintained a neutrality, offering a common space where we can leave our opinions at home but honor these men and women who deserve our recognition.”
The images are far more than simple photographic portraits. Kenney has included childhood photos, Vineyard scenes, and short statements handwritten by the participants to create what she describes as “multidimensional mosaics.”
“I asked every veteran, ‘What are you grateful for?’” said Ms. Kenney. “Seeing a certain person’s handwriting is such a romantic sentiment for me.”
The photographer provided her own shots of the Vineyard and other images to build up a story for each subject. “I tried to listen to my intuition to find a way to represent them and incorporate the natural beauty of the Island,” she says.
Kenney hopes to use the exhibit to raise community awareness on a number of issues. “When my husband returned home from Afghanistan, survivor’s guilt created a very brave opportunity for him to receive counseling,” says Kenney. “There was a three-week waiting period.”
Citing statistics from a Veterans Administration report, Kenney writes, “It is heartbreaking to read the statistics that 22 veterans a day commit suicide. More soldiers die on American soil, versus combat, due to a lack of mental health and rehabilitation as they transition back into civilian life.”
The help that Kenney’s husband received from Bennett and Murphy inspired the photographer to use her talent to honor Island veterans and service providers.
“I hope that my art invokes pride in our Island, compassion toward PTSD, and authentic reactions of gratitude to Island men and women who served our country,” writes Kenney in her artist’s statement. “My choice of using art is a testimony for my compassion and gratitude to all who have served our country. It is my thank you.”
Another relative of a veteran will be participating in the opening reception. “One of the veteran’s sons is going to come and perform music. This is his way of honoring his dad through his music. There are other ways of honoring our neighbors that are outside of the box,” Kenney said.
“Art has always been such a great common ground,” said Kenney. “When I started this project, I thought maybe there’s a way to open our doors and our own prejudices to find a way to honor these vets.”
“My Island Veterans,” portraits by Dylan Spencer Kenney, will hang at the West Tisbury library through the end of February. Reception for the show is Saturday, Feb. 3, from 4 to 5 pm. Refreshments and live music provided by Porchlight.