On the surface, war and papermaking would seem an unlikely pairing.
However, the two are joined in an emerging art form that one group of veterans hopes will ease the pain of post traumatic stress disorder and provide a new medium to express the military experience.
Through papermaking workshops, veterans use their combat uniforms to create cathartic works of art. The uniforms are cut up, beat and formed into sheets of paper, said Drew Cameron, a 27-year-old former Army sergeant and one of the founders of The Combat Paper Project. Veterans use the process of papermaking to reclaim their uniforms as art and embrace their experiences as a soldier in war, he and other project organizers said. Founders see the project as an alternative to medication and traditional forms of therapy.
The Combat Paper Project's goal is to use art as a means for veterans to reconcile their personal experiences as well as broaden the traditional narrative surrounding service, honor and the military culture, said Cameron.
"The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms," Cameron wrote of the project. "The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reclaiming that association of subordination, of warfare and service into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration."
Founders of the project have taken up residency at The Studios of Key West this month. They will hold a public papermaking workshop from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday. The artwork will remain on display and for sale there until Jan. 10.
Founders of the project are also using their time in Key West to plot the future of the project, which includes plans to work with survivors in other areas of recent conflict such as Belgrade and Sarajevo. The Combat Paper Project is based out of Green Door Studio in Burlington, Vt. The group takes the project on the road, stopping at art institutions and colleges. Their workshops can last days, leaving little time to decompress and plan the long-term future of the project.
"This is a time for us to rest, recoup and reflect," said Drew Matott, the 32-year-old artistic director of the project. "We generally leave these workshops exhausted."
Seeds are sewn
Matott and Cameron are accomplished papermakers and artists who teach paper workshops and create book art. Matott received a master of fine arts in book and paper arts from Columbia College in Chicago. Cameron learned Eastern papermaking from his father and studied Western papermaking from Matott at the Green Door Studio.
The two became fast friends, they said. They met after Cameron, who did a tour of duty in Iraq with an artillery unit, left the military in 2006. Cameron became involved in the peace movement, but he was not comfortable as an organizer of anti-war demonstrations, he said.
Matott initially shied away from asking Cameron about his combat experience. However, Cameron brought in some photos from Iraq one day and the two began discussing the war and the peace movement. While Matott was studying at Columbia, the two developed several public art pieces that built momentum for their continued collaboration.
In 2007, they proposed having Chicago pedestrians cut the uniforms of veterans in public, but the two were unable to receive institutional support for the proposed street intervention. Matott then went onto San Francisco to make paper, work as a book artist and teach. Cameron took up the duties of running the Green Door Studio back in Vermont.
Something about the idea of cutting up the uniforms stuck with Cameron, and in May 2007, he decided to cut up his own uniform and pulp it into paper. It was the first time he had worn his uniform since leaving the military, an experience he called simply "weird." He called a photographer friend to document the event. He cut away the uniform into little strips of cloth until he was standing in only his Skivvies and combat boots.
"I thought it was a powerful image," Cameron said. "You don't really associate a soldier with being or looking so vulnerable, especially in uniform."
The two took about 80 photos and the uniform produced a stack of 70-plus sheets of paper weighing about 3½ pounds. Cameron hit the road shortly afterward, headed to San Francisco.
Around the same time, the San Francisco Center for the Book was looking for an artistic and poetic response to the bombing of a printers row in Bagdad, Matott said. Cameron and Matott submitted the several sheets of paper made from Cameron's uniform to serve as a medium for some of the writings.
Cameron then began dabbling in writing and poetry; his work was published alongside other members of Iraq Veterans Against the War in a book called "Warrior Writers." He later turned the photos into silk-screened works of art. That idea grew, and on Armistice Day 2007, the Green Door Studio held its first workshop in which active duty military personnel and veterans tore up their fatigues and turned them into paper and then art. Some of those who participated were headed to Iraq shortly afterward.
"I remember seeing them drive off, and as their taillights went over the horizon, thinking I may never see them again," Matott said.
The Combat Paper Project was born. The event was an artistic success and schools such as Arizona State University and University of California asked the group to hold papermaking workshops and showings at their facilities.
The project has since branched to other communities. Marine Corps veteran Donna Perdue has started an offshoot of the Combat Paper Project in Cleveland. Programs in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Colorado Springs, Colo., also have sprung up. Plans are now in the works for Minneapolis and San Diego, Matott and Cameron said.
Perdue uses the military term "unserviceable" when describing returning combat veterans. The term usually refers to trucks, military vehicles or weapons that are not functioning.
"We are government property," she said. "We have been damaged and now we need to be fixed. It's a moral obligation. This is our simplest way of saying, 'We will help you.'"
Perdue sees Combat Paper Project as an alternative to traditional forms of therapy and medication. One of the goals the group set while in Key West was to move away from politics and focus more on art therapy. The group is currently working with several art therapists.
"It's very cathartic," said Perdue, who created a piece called My Culture/Amani at Fort Zachary Taylor last weekend using her uniform, the ocean and sand. "When the cutting begins, that's when the magic starts happening and they start talking. It triggers a memory that they have repressed. A lot these guys won't talk about this unless it is with another vet. It is a form of art therapy. We want the veterans to have a means to incorporate self-care."
The project has even begun to expand globally. The Combat Paper Project received a grant last summer to the Arts Council of England to work with former Irish Republic Army, British Armed Forces and civilians caught in the middle of that conflict, Matott said.
Artists with the project will travel this September to Sarajevo and neighboring cities that were ravaged in the Bosnian War.
"The seeds have been planted -- whether they grow or not, we don't know yet," project webmaster and photographer Tom Lascell said.
Key West requests papermakers
News of the project made its way to The Studios of Key West last year, and Executive Director Eric Holowacz invited members of the project to exhibit their work, conduct workshops and give the artists a break from touring.
The Combat Paper Project works on three distinct levels, Holowacz said. It is a therapeutic and cathartic process for war-torn vets, providing a means for them to express hidden feelings and faraway experiences. The project also is an opportunity for the general public to understand how war and conflict have affected friends and neighbors. On a third level, it is about the craft and tradition of making paper, which goes back thousands of years. It began with the Chinese Empire, spread to the Arab world, and flourished with the printing press and the rise of the book, Holowacz said.
"Drew Matott and Drew Cameron are keepers of this tradition, and they have dedicated themselves to bringing the craft and creative process to people around the country and the world," he said. "But for me, a project like Combat Paper represents a kind of maturity for our organization. It brings a richness and a dialogue to the island, and it engages us with the national consciousness."