April 20-November 11, 2013
Rosenberg Library, 2nd Floor
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Combat Paper/Drew Cameron, Tangerine Gyo, ed holmes, Yvette Pino, Ehren Tool, Javier Viramontes and John Wehrle
In the Fall of 2013, more than 2,000 veterans will be enrolled as students at City College of San Francisco. Through Finding Home, members of the College community have a chance to learn more about veteran’s experience from multiple perspectives. Artists in the show served in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraq War and the Afghan War, Homeland Security and the reserves. CCSF offers multiple services to veteran students through the CCSF Veterans Alliance and the CCSF Veterans Services Center, co-sponsors of this exhibition.
English 1A taught by Darren Keast focuses on veterans’ issues. We invited Keast to write the introduction to the exhibition:
On the first day of the English class I teach about military and veterans’ issues, I ask my students how many wars the United States is currently fighting. Most have no military experience and many likely live in the media black hole that I did at their age, but still, the range of answers is always surprising. I get “zero,” “one,” “two,” “four,” “seventeen,” “hundreds.” Many just write “I have no idea” or “too many.” Part of the problem here is linguistic—defining “war” is tricky, as it has been stretched to include domestic drug-eradication programs and debates over multiculturalism, and incoming administrations change talking points overnight, as when Obama dropped “the Global War on Terror.” And I can find no official statement on the Department of Defense’s website about how many wars it is waging.
Imagine spending four or eight or more years humping radio gear in jungle steam or clutching a buddy after an IED lifts your Humvee off a Baghdad highway and then hear about the war you just returned from, “I thought that was over years ago.” Or “we never declared war there, did we?” Or “I figured all was well with the troops there because it’s not in the news anymore.” Or “oh you were over there? How many people have you killed?” (Vets at City College often cite this as the most frequent and most dreaded question they get.)
The urge to create comes from the impulse to share. But what if the feeling or vision you want to share is from so far away a place that it simply “doesn’t compute” for those who have not been or will not go? In the face of this chasm, the veteran artist creates anyway. For many vets, it is this peacetime world of seeming placidity and safety that doesn’t compute. In his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, former war correspondent Christopher Hedges writes that “the enduring attraction of war is this: even with its destruction and carnage, it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” Finding meaning outside of this context, after this context, dogs most returning warriors, from Ulysses and Ajax after the Trojan War to the child soldier in Chad to my grandfathers at sleepy bases in the Pacific to the artists represented here.
Of course, combat and “frontline” war (an increasingly meaningless term given urban conflicts) are not the only forces that prompt veteran artists to share. The most action my grandpa Sanders saw as a Navy pilot was dropping an explosive on a whale he mistook for a Japanese submarine. But during each of the countless times he retold this story, I remember that his hands shook. When he wrote about his World War II service toward the end of his life, he lingered over every detail of this incident, even if he felt that this sortie made him look patently absurd. In the words of John Wehrle, an artist on display here who was sent by the Army to document the Vietnam War in paint, “as with any tragedy, I try to find some leavening of humor to make the pain easier to bear.”
One of the essay assignments for my class asks, “what are a civilian’s obligations during wartime?”No one has a satisfying answer to this question. No one is requiring that we grow victory gardens or send soldiers letters or even know that a particular war is going on anymore. Surely listening, looking, and receiving form the most basic foundation from which to start. We invite you to start with these pieces, all by veteran artists with some connection to the Bay Area.
Darren Keast teaches English at City College.
Check out War Ink a project of the Contra Costa County Library