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From clothing of war to paper of peace

Helena Guan

“Who is at fault for the war in Iraq? Would anyone like to take credit?”

This was the first question asked at Combat Paper/Warrior Writers, this year’s third event for the Contemporary Writer’s Series. It was held on Oct. 14, first in Lisser Hall, full with the Mills community, then continued in the Heller book room for conversation with the artists and sale of original pieces.

A collaboration between the Book Art, English and Psychology departments, the Combat Paper Project came to Mills as part of its second tour across the country. Many of the artists stayed in the guest rooms of Mills dormitories Oct. 13-15, while they made paper and worked with students on campus.

To go along with the art events, the Psychology department held a lecture with Dr. Kumar Vedantham from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, called “Coming home a stranger: Readjustment challenges for the new vets.”

“There was so much going on,” said Lara Durback, Book Art Studio specialist, who did her best to get everything the artists needed during their stay. “Mills isn’t set up to actually make paper and [the artists] just made it happen when they got here.”

During Book Art Program head Kathleen Walkup’s glowing introduction to the artists, Drew Matott, one of the driving forces of the project, sat on the stage, leaning back on his forearms, smiling.

Combat Paper is based out of Green Door Studio in Burlington, Vermont and started in 2007. Matott noted at the beginning that the group felt right at home in Lisser, reminiscent of a Vermont town hall. The goal of the project is to help veterans understand their experiences in the military and at war through art. Collaborating with Iraq Veterans Against the War, Combat Paper is not necessarily anti-war.

“They work with any veteran with interest,” said Durback. “They just want to help them make amends with the experience.”

Walkup said that Combat Paper has created a profound response wherever they go and had been “in the air” of the Book Art community for some time. She met Matott at a panel in Saratoga, Calif. last spring.

“We started planning a performance at Mills right away,” she said.

Walkup spent much of the summer pulling together this huge endeavor.

“It was all Kathy,” said Durback. “You could tell she was totally enthralled by these guys.”

The artists spend much of their time going around the country, “doing writing and making workspaces for veterans,” said Matott. He emphasized that lecture/performances, such as this one at Mills, connects civilians and veterans, rare in today’s society.

“Dialogue between civilians and veterans will end this war,” he said, “and change the world for the better.”

As with many of their workshops, Combat Paper does more than show their work and speak to an audience, they actually pulp their uniforms and make paper with the community.

Because there is no beater on campus, Walkup and the Mills Book Art team took the Combat Paper artists to Magnolia Editions, a studio Walkup frequently works with, to pulverize the cloth material on Oct. 13. Earlier on the day of the performance, the artists made a paper-making studio in CPM courtyard and encouraged everyone to participate.

“It was phenomenal,” said Walkup. “So powerful. It was obvious that the uniforms were so emblematic of what the veterans had experienced in training and at war and that they were claiming that experience for themselves.”

Drew Cameron, Combat Paper’s co-initiator with Matott, made a more striking entrance at the reading. Wearing a camouflage-style jacket, he stepped onto the stage with two other men and, as he read an excerpt of Mark Twin’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, his partners took scissors to his jacket and removed it from his body.

“To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags – that is a loyalty of unreason,” Cameron quoted.

Cameron spoke eloquently, as if he was constantly composing or quoting a poem, as naturally as breathing. He ended his performance with the words, “We are living in troubling times, fellow patriots.”

One of the most moving pieces came from Angela Knowles, the only woman among the artists and one of the few female veterans to participate in the project. Knowles had never met the Combat Paper artists until she went to the beating and took part in the papermaking. She is a veteran of the Air Force, forced into it by her military family, as she described, and now is studying the practice of art at UC Berkeley.

“I had a dream of going to art school and studying philosophy,” she said, “but that wasn’t enough for my father.”

It was obvious that everyone who experienced this event was moved, with active participation and many questions at the end of the performance.

“I was so impressed by [the veterans’] ability to basically open themselves wide up for us,” said Katie Thomas, a Book Art student. “The Combat Paper Project gives them a voice and a platform for being heard. It also provides the cathartic experience of turning an emblem of what was horrific in their lives into vivid, visual and verbal expressions of that experience.”

Durback feels blessed that she got to be a part of this experience. “I was incredibly lucky to get to work so closely with these people.”

The Mills Library has purchased one of the artists’ portfolios, Jon Michael Turner’s, and it is available for viewing in the Heller book room.