Shredding war's dark memories
Iraq war veterans release their angst by turning their uniforms into paper.
Burlington, Vt. — Pair of scissors. Army uniform. Catharsis. Art.
Iraq war veteran Drew Cameron found his way back into civilian life by cutting up his uniform and turning the fabric of war into handmade paper. He imprinted the paper with poetry and self-portraits. He invited other veterans to join him in "liberating rag."
Now, a whole community of veterans, scattered across the United States and beyond, finds a certain solace in the craft and in the companionship.
Jennifer Pacanowski thought the idea was silly at first. But when she attended one of Mr. Cameron's papermaking workshops during a gathering of war veteran writers in Massachusetts, she was surprised by how it gripped her. "I just started cutting my uniform up, and before I knew it, I was sweating and my hand was bleeding," she says in a phone interview. "It was so satisfying, I can't even describe it.... It's so freeing, like just destroying a really bad memory."
The memory stems from Ms. Pacanowski's time as an Army medic in Iraq in 2004-05, and from the post-traumatic stress disorder with which she was later diagnosed. Three things keep her going, she says: her writing, her service dog Boo (trained to help sense an oncoming anxiety attack), and her connection with Cameron's Burlington, Vt.- based Combat Paper Project.
"I can write about Iraq in my poetry, but [the fact that] I can put it on my uniform – it's a pretty incredible concept," Pacanowski says. After she travels to the Vermont studio from her Pennsylvania home, she sleeps better because papermaking can be physically exhausting. More important, she breaks out of a sense of isolation: "In Vermont, everything seems to flow better because I have so many people around me who know what I'm going through."
The project has a purpose beyond the therapeutic, too. In exhibits and public workshops, it builds bridges between veterans and civilians. "When someone decides to take that act – to take their uniform and deconstruct it and turn it into paper – they're there and ready to share, so it becomes this phenomenally honest space," Cameron says.
Such connections happened earlier this year when the Firehouse Gallery, on a main pedestrian plaza in Burlington, hosted a Combat Paper Project residency for eight weeks. One Saturday, visitors heard stories from a man who had recently returned from Iraq. As he cut up his uniform, he pointed out the sweat and sand still embedded in it, Cameron recalls. He let others join in and help turn it into rags, then pulp, then paper.
Firehouse Gallery curator Christopher Thompson sees the project in the context of a trend in contemporary arts known as relational aesthetics – in which the interaction between people is the art. He found that making paper with veterans and the public was both fun and profound. "[You] get your hands all goopy and the stuff turns out beautifully," he says in a phone interview. "We had a number of people saying that it was one of the most powerful exhibits they'd ever been to...."
Cameron, a lithe young man from Iowa, joined the Army after high school and deployed to Iraq in 2003 after the initial invasion. Afterward he signed up for a stint in the National Guard in Vermont, and "became obsessed" with papermaking when he learned it at the Green Door Studio, a converted broom factory in Burlington that he now operates with several partners.
In the main room, thick pieces of paper hang from a clothesline overhead. A small metal Hollander beater, used to spin fiber and break it into pulp, sits off to one side, decorated with a bumper sticker quoting Buckminster Fuller: "Either war is obsolete or men are." On a large table, artists spread and press the pulp into sheets. Shelves overflow with piles of rags, military uniforms, and shredded money.
Cameron points to the spot where he stood in 2007 and asked a friend to take photos of him cutting off his uniform – a series of portraits that were the genesis of the Combat Paper Project. "This was the first time I had worn the uniform since I was in Iraq," he says. After turning it into paper, he printed the photos onto the sheets, along with a poem he'd written as a sort of letter to the people of Iraq titled "You are not my enemy."
Showing the portraits as he traveled, he sparked interest among other veterans, who began donating their uniforms and later participated when Cameron and other project members started offering workshops around the country. He now has a pile of "lineage fiber" combining the uniforms of veterans from different generations, military branches, ranks, and conflicts ranging from World War II to Bosnia to Afghanistan.
Cameron says he didn't experience the trauma of injury or killing during the war, but his stance "against US occupations" developed after he returned. There's no political litmus test for participating in the project. "We don't have a doctrine," he says. "We are papermakers ... and we're trying to make sense of conflict and war and trauma ... in a creative way."
• For more information, go to: www.combatpaper.org.