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Between Here and There, our series of ten sculptures and ten paintings of combat veterans, is on the road. Next stop, Vashon Island, Washington, just across Puget Sound from Seattle. Sculptor Christopher Wagner and I are trucking the portraits up midweek, and we’ll be there for a talk and reception starting Friday, February 6, at 5:30pm. Snacks and drinks of course, to go with what the people on the island call the Gallery Cruise. (I’m happy to repeat that nautical pun.)

A few of our veterans also plan to be there, so it should be a good time to talk about what all this posing and painting and sculpting meant to us.

In the mean time, here’s a happy interview with me and Chris to give you the gist of what we think we did:

Vashon Allied Arts, 19704 Vashon Highway SW, Vashon Island, Washington

If you’re in the area, please consider joining us for a group show at Riversea Gallery in Astoria. Bringing together a few painters with contracts at the gallery, the director asked us to choose a person whose life is somehow extraordinary and portray an aspect of that person through objects he or she uses or echo an environment that speaks of them.

I chose to reexamine my wife Whitney’s clothes, focusing on the “close” part of the show’s title. Frankly, I expected the other painters would represent lives more obviously extraordinary. But of course her life is amazing! Whit is living in an extraordinary moment for women as a new mother who sports a nose ring and travels across the continent as a government contractor—an excellent representative of today’s many flavors of feminism: professional, punk, maternal and muscular.

The show opens with a reception January 10, with all the wine-and-food happiness we expect at that excellent establishment.

Riversea Gallery, 1160 Commercial Street, Astoria, Oregon

The final portrait in our series Between Here and There portrays Lt. Col. Alisha Hamel, a historian and Army National Guard veteran who fought in the first Gulf War. Her story, which she told in bursts while sculptor Christopher Wagner and I mixed and drew and painted and carved, has two kinds of minority views in it: that of a female combatant and that of an oft forgotten war.

A few months ago she helped connect us with Bill Keys, a World War II vet who turned 90 while we worked on his portrait. Alisha came to see the progress during one of those sessions, and we asked her if she wouldn’t mind posing as our second female, represeting both a transition in women’s roles in our military and the veterans from a short war we tend to overlook in the grand combat narrative sweep between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan.

Remember the Gulf War? After aggressive action by a Mideast dictator, President George Bush—that’s H.W., not W—gathered a coalition of 34 nations with UN resolutions in hand, said, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait,” and efficiently pushed the dictator’s troops out of the way, inadvertently starting a military involvement in the region that continues today. I turned twelve as the “Desert Shield” buildup gave way to the “Desert Storm” aerial bombardment and a three-week ground war, the first real-time cable news clash between nations.

In 1990 Alisha, a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant, had been in her job one week when her unit was called up. She said they were the first Oregon unit deployed since World War II. (Since there are no big bases or forts in Oregon, that makes sense.) Her unit handled “air terminal movement control,” which means helping other units arrive safely to a location via air. Alisha was one of the first troops deployed.

She served as the Battalion S-1—the junior officer who managed the logistical arrival of people, parts and vehicles, clearing the way of any traffic jams as transport aircraft and trucks and so on arrived to the Saudi desert.

As a woman in an conservative Muslim kingdom, she was not allowed to drive and usually made do with a male driver who sported huge coke bottle glasses. She joked about seeing all the potential road mishaps that he couldn’t, and once, she said, her driver took a wrong turn and almost took them into Kuwait just as the allies were warming up to invade the area.

Sometimes, for the sake of efficiency and safety, Alisha disobeyed orders and drove herself, watching some Saudi women cheer when they saw her drive past.

Alisha went into combat in an amazing moment of transition for women in our military. For the first time, she said, “In Desert Storm, women were actually expected to be in positions that were not necessarily female roles.” That is, they deployed for the first time not just as secretaries or nurses but as combat pilots, logistics officers and more. With each subsequent conflict, the role of women has increased, and the Pentagon is still learning how to manage the logistical, legal and other challenges that come when men and women work the same combat jobs and sleep and take showers in the same areas.

Because the more things change…

Alisha was one of a long line of women in our military who had to weather harassment of many kinds. Unwanted sexual advances from one superior got bad enough that she had to transfer to a different unit just before deployment to Saudi Arabia.

Twenty-four years after her combat deployment she identifies as a minority of a different sort: as a veteran of a quick war that didn’t stamp itself on the national consciousness with near the severity of the ones that came before and after. As a result her generation of veterans doesn’t qualify for the post-9/11 benefits in the GI Bill, as well as other similar benefits from the VA, and no national memorial site (unless you count this virtual one).

It all reminds me of French critic Jean Baudrillard’s book of essays The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, written during and immediately after that conflict. Baudrillard makes the sassy argument that the Gulf War, which appeared to be a war, really wasn’t one. War, for Baudrillard, can’t have a predetermined outcome. It has to be a contest between equals that breeds heroism and memorials and a generation that wrestles with its aftermath. The last hot war, World War II, gave way to the Cold War, and then, in 1990, “America, Saddam Hussein and the Gulf powers are fighting over the corpse of war” (23).

For Baudrillard, a critic bent on the idea that modern life is full of simulations of events that replace real relationships with each other and our environment, the live CNN images of green tracers arcing toward unseen fighter/bombers, the mind-boggling deployment of troops and materiel, and the bloodless language of “surgical strikes” and “kinetic warfare” gave the whole enterprise the look and feel of a video game.

(An aside: According to accounts widely cited in 1991 and repeated in Baudrillard’s book, more bombs were dropped by allied forces on Iraq and Kuwait during that six-week air bombardment than all the tonnage dropped in World War II, but that doesn’t hold water. This article cites both those errant early claims and the later corrections. Official records show about 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped in the 1991 war, compared to 1,613,000 tons dropped over Europe in World War II, which doesn’t factor in the other half of the war, in the Pacific, which also featured the only two nukes ever used in anger.)

Of course for Alisha Hamel, the heat, the Scud missile attacks, the second-class treatment in country, and the harassment from her fellow troops were etched in deep. As Executive Director of the Historical Outreach Foundation, she has dedicated her career to teaching children about combat history, setting aside video game style attractions for hands-on displays of real equipment and uniforms, teaching mostly about wars she never saw. It’s a worthy mission performed honorably by someone trying to help the next generation of military members—women and men—get a more fair shake than she did.

Now in its 14th year, Guardino Gallery’s “Little Things” show is a Portland institution. If you’re looking for a good gift of painting or sculpture or assemblage, everything here is little and original: maximum 7 inches per side… and it’s reasonably priced.

Go forth! Shop local:

Guardino Gallery: 30th and Alberta, NE

Photo by Ross Blanchard, PDX Magazine.

Here’s a shot of sculptor Christopher Wagner (yellow hat), my collaborator on this series, laughing at me as I show my tattoo to a group of people at our opening Nov. 7. I was explaining how I got inked at Atlas Tattoo, just up the street from the gallery, and how fun it was to find out that’s the same place Ron Baker (our Vietnam vet with full body dragon tattoos) got his.

Thanks to everyone who came… an amazing turnout and an evening full of some of the most lively conversations I’ve ever had about painting and sculpture and military service and beer and pumpkin flavored cookies.

We’ll be back at the gallery to chat some more this Thursday, Nov. 13, from 6-9 pm.

Good: A Gallery: 4325 N. Mississippi, Portland, Ore.

As part of our portrait series, we’ve decided to add little two-line captions to our paintings and sculptures of combat veterans. We hung the show yesterday, and on the wall near one sculpture/painting combination, we put this label: “Between sessions posing for his portrait, he attempted to set a record collecting stamps for the McMenamins passport from all 53 locations in less than 24 hours—he concluded it’s impossible without a helicopter.”

Once in a while sculptor Christopher Wagner and I did audio recordings of a session as we worked on our two-media portraits of combat veterans. Some of the most entertaining clips came from Jack O’Neal, a senior enlisted Army psychological operations specialist who also served as a translator in Iraq.

Jack is a tinkerer, a constant rethinker. We portrayed him with one of his inventions, a glove to help bicyclists make visible hand signals at night—very Portland, we thought. Jack said he was sick of almost crashing into cyclists after dark when he drove his car, so he made a glove for the left hand that presents different flashing arrows depending on which direction the hand is raised, whether out to the left for a left turn, bent up for a right turn, or bent down to signal “stop.”

“Wait,” Chris asked. “You’re not a cyclist?” Nope, said Jack. He just saw a problem that needed to be fixed.

That combination of creativity and tenacity seems to permeate his entire life.

Jack told us one day all about his aquaponics work, which he learned how to do in Afghanistan. It’s essentially a fish bowl that grows food. “I’ve got basil, cherry tomatoes; I’ve got green beans, just off one little goldfish,” he said. “You can do tilapia, trout. Next time we’re gonna do trout. I like the trout taste.”

Then came the conversation about McMenamins, an Oregon company known for turning historical buildings into pubs, hotels and theatres, saving them from demolition and turning a profit across the state. This time the tape recorder was rolling when Jack told us about the company’s “Cosmic Tripster” passport (a term he said he dislikes because it makes holders of the passport sound like drug addicts). He and his wife traveled to every McMenamins location this past summer, acquiring stamps in little books that the company sells for $25. When they finished they got a bunch of prizes, including a six-night stay in one of the McMenamins hotels.

Problem: Jack had just gone swimming and ruined his fully-stamped passport.

Solution: Try to get all the stamps in another passport in under 24 hours, setting a McMenamins Cosmic Tripster land speed record in the process.

“I wanted to do this anyway, so it kind of works out for me,” he said. “I’ve already started planning the route, and I think I’d have to start in Bend around 7pm. If you hit the Bend locations, you drive down to Roseburg, and then you start working your way up I-5 and get as far as you can—I think if you can make it to the McMinnville one before they close down and get those stamps, I think you could be set up for the next day to have a successful day and get it completed before 7pm. But with some of my initial calculations, we’re looking at having to drive like 85 miles an hour the entire way. But if you’re working with somebody, you basically have a navigator, the guy filming it, the copilot. He can do multiple roles…”

Maybe the way to go would be with two vehicles, he said, one as cop bait. Also, he had to plan to tackle the treasure hunts at certain locations. An aspiring Cosmic Tripster has to do a “photo hunt” at Edgefield, for example, to prove he was there.

A friend of his is an amateur filmmaker who would help crew the adventure, film it, and Jack could do a Kickstarter campaign for a rental car, fuel, and food during the attempt.

That campaign didn’t happen, but the attempt did. Jack ended up going solo on the road, driving all over Oregon to get stamps (I didn’t ask how fast), but he came up short and admitted he’d just have to travel faster to get it done. Next try, he’ll have to add a good helicopter pilot to the crew.

Between Here and There, a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner have been brushing and carving into all year, goes on display tomorrow, November 7, 2014, at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

Join me and sculptor Christopher Wagner at Good: A Gallery this Friday, November 7, from 7 to 10pm. We’ll be celebrating our year of working with combat veterans from around the Portland area, portraits of vets from World War II, through today’s wars. Meet them, chat over a beverage, and enjoy a good start to the weekend with Scott Foster, the generous and professional owner of the gallery. Good times!

Good: A Gallery, 4325 N. Mississippi Ave, Portland, Ore.

Photo by Michael Roe

Here’s a photo of me presenting the thoughts behind the series Between Here and There: Portraits of Veterans, which sculptor Christopher Wagner and I have been working on for about a year. We did the talk at the Ford Building, in SE Portland, in the production spaces for PDX Magazine. The show of painted/sculpted portraits opens this Friday, November 7, at Good: A Gallery here in Portland.

Thanks to all who showed up to share the beer!

To celebrate the publication of their upcoming issue, and the move to their new office/event space, PDX Magazine has invited me to give a talk about the portrait project Christopher Wagner and I have been sculpting and painting into with combat veterans this year. 

Here’s a link to the Facebook event at the Ford Building:

The party starts at 8pm, in what the editors are calling their “art cave” (which makes me curious). Beer, wine, foods, goodness…

Also look for an article about this portrait series in the Lake Oswego Review, scheduled to come out at the end of October. This project is getting a little attention. And rightly so. We think we’re doing something special with these veterans.

PDX Magazine
Ford Building
2505 SE 11th Ave, Suite B27
Portland, Oregon 97202

By Christopher B. Wagner

Over the past month the focus of my studio work has revolved around the process of making molds for four of the finished clay portraits. Paul had been in India working with his father to install a pipe organ, giving us a break from our continuous model schedule, a break I needed to catch up on producing finished pieces. This time has allowed me to reorient myself in my own studio, which has been somewhat neglected over the course of our Veteran portrait project and given me time to reflect. All the hours of modeling and conversation had blended in my mind, so taking the time to digest the experience while finishing work has been cathartic.

My mind wanders to the jungles of Vietnam while breaking apart the body of our model Ron whom I had to be cut into four pieces in order to cast it; a separate mold for each of his arms, one for his right leg, and a large mold for his torso. I spend somewhere in the proximity of 20 to 30 extra hours of work beyond the modeling phase to produce a final representation of him. He is cast with a polyurethane skin, which captures all the detail of the original clay, every tool mark and the occasional fingerprint and then filled with concrete to anchor him. I line up the seams of his arms and leg, drill holes and insert threaded steel rods to hold him together. I haven’t weighed him yet but a half-sized portrayal of a human being filled with concrete is heavy. Several layers of acrylic paint simplify the complexity of his actual tattoos, but I feel just enough is captured to give the sense of them. Over the top of the paint I apply a thin wash of black, which brings out the details of his carved tattoos and wrinkles. Finally a dry brushing of white creates highlights and serves to unify the overall composition.

I perform a similar set of steps with varying levels of complexity for each of the veteran portraits. Several can be cast in one solid piece, which sounds like it should be less work, and it is less work on the back end—but in the beginning, where I am now, a sculptor has to make a very complicated and time consuming mold to make a solid casting possible. Our World War II veteran Bill, for example, is cast in one solid piece. His upright seated posture, which might be the simplest pose for any of our veterans, makes this possible. The mold for him only required two pieces of rubber, but a seven-piece mother mold. A mother mold serves as an exoskeleton to the flexible rubber. The rubber needs a stable form in order to hold its shape, and since the mother mold is necessarily inflexible, I need many pieces so that I can break it apart once the mold is filled with a rigid material. Part of the trick in casting a sculpture in one piece (and a trade off in time) is layering. Where with Ron, which is broken into several simpler molds, I could cast an arm in one pouring of polyurethane, with Bill I have to pour many small, thin layers to coat all the surfaces in the mold, and each layer has to dry between pourings.

The complicated process that goes into creating a cast sculpture is an arduous series creative and destructive steps. In the end a sculptor has to trust his skill, roll the dice, and hopefully a sculpture will result. I could make several comparisons between this process and our veterans but I will leave that to your consideration. I will say, however, there is nothing quite like the feeling I get at the end of a casting when I’m breaking apart a mold with a rock in my gut, hoping that a usable piece is inside, and I peel back the inner layer to find a well formed face staring back.