Walking to remember

Vietnam vet Steve Maxner combs the beaches and creates powerful artwork that reflects his memories.


War marks everyone, and Steve Maxner’s art brings this home with a powerful punch in his exhibition “But…Such is War,” which comes out of his experience in Vietnam from 1969-1970 when he was just 22 years old.

Maxner gives us a precious gift — the opportunity to not just see but to witness part of his healing from PTSD through art. What we see are striking assemblages of shells, driftwood, claws, and other things he’s found along beaches; Maxner calls them “gifts washed in by the tide.” He collects the items on his daily beach walks with his dog Ollie, and each sculpture is just the latest part of his journey toward recovery. 

“On my walks, I remember incidences in Vietnam, and I visualize and tangibly get in touch with those memories,” Maxner says. “I see them, touch them, feel them, smell them because they’ve been sort of lost.” Making these works is part of the “reconnaissance mission to locate my feelings and uncover memories frozen in time.” He speaks of his transformation from an open young man to immediately coping with the horrific events by shutting down. “I did my job and numbed out and didn’t think about it every day,” he says.

Each day Maxner walks a different shoreline and afterwards, he explains, “If I have a memory, I go to my studio and let it happen. At that point I don’t really know what’s going on. I have some vague idea of what I want to do. How it comes out is sort of a mystery to me. It’s been interesting because I remember more incidences, so it’s been good. I take those memories and turn them into things. It’s therapeutic.”

Maxner doesn’t consider himself an artist, but his arresting wall sculptures say otherwise. He’s got a terrific eye and ability to create strong, visually evocative works. And that’s where their power lies … in the impact they make when we not so much view them, but as we really experience them. Maxner layers, entwines, or overlaps his natural sources, giving each piece a unique sensation, a life of its own that goes beyond a pure abstraction. Gazing at them we immediately have a gut reaction without initially knowing what the piece is about. But when we learn their references, say in his series about the thousands and thousands of Americans, Koreans, Hmong, and Vietnamese killed, our instinctual reaction to them begins to make sense.

A particularly powerful example is the twisting, inflamed fragmented remains of the inside of a conch shell mounted vertically on driftwood that is oddly disturbing. And with good reason. 

“I was taking a walk and had a memory about a friend of mine who lost his foot just three weeks before going home,” Maxner recalls. “I was thinking about that and I saw this one conch shell that reminded me of it. I happened to find a piece of driftwood that I thought would be appropriate for that shell to make it real for me. It’s kind of foggy in some ways. When I see my work, I see all that happened. I remember his crying and intense pain. And he was a long-distance runner.”

Maxner sees each one of his works as the memory, not the textural visual piece we perceive. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s real to me. It’s in a different dimension. In a war situation, consciousness or reality can either be opened or changed,” Maxner says. “It’s a phenomenon I don’t understand, but all I know is things happened in Vietnam that are beyond anything I can explain rationally.”

Maxner’s exhibition is an act of courage. “I said I’d be open to the show knowing that it would make me vulnerable, because I usually keep this stuff close to myself,” he says. “They’re incidences and they’re not pleasant. Most of the memories are dark or dramatic. Then I started to think about it, and I think I have an opportunity to share some of these experiences through this art with other people who would not otherwise see them. I am hopeful that they will become involved in it.” 

Maxner has written songs about his Vietnam experiences that, along with personal stories in the exhibition, will give a glimpse of the horrors of war as well as his journey towards peace, creating a multi-sensory experience.

And while Maxner’s art is serious in intent, the products of his journey through the trauma of war carry their own exquisite beauty that beckons us closer, to experience them intimately and to be deeply moved. Maxner credits the Island as key to his journey forward. Talking about how he transforms his found ingredients from the beach into tangible thoughts and feelings, he says, “I have no idea how this happens. It’s all a great mystery, but I think it has something to do with the healing nature of the Vineyard waters.” 


“But … Such is War” will be on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum from Jan. 21 through Feb. 28.