Celebrating Drew Cameron’s Healing Art

November 14th, 2011

By Jan Barry

Drew CameronRemarks I gave at “Envisioning Tomorrow,” the Printmaking Center of New Jersey’s awards dinner at the Somerville Elks Lodge, Bridgewater, NJ on November 12. The center honored Drew Cameron, the co-founder and co-director of Combat Paper, “a touring project with a compelling mission to use the healing power of art to transform the shattered lives of young veterans.”

I first encountered Drew Cameron three years ago at Rutgers University, where I was teaching a journalism class. He and several fellow Combat Papermakers were conducting workshops at the Brodsky Center in New Brunswick, turning military uniforms into posters and chapbooks of art and poetry, culminating in a jam-packed poetry reading. I went to the first workshop intending to spend a day—and ended up returning all week, intrigued by the interaction of vets, students, art instructors and passersby.

Though my intention was to observe and write about this fascinating project, I was pulled into the middle of it by Drew’s infectious invitation to join in. Presented the opportunity to cut up a desert warfare uniform, I found it very satisfying to disassemble an official symbol of military might. I wished I still had one of my Vietnam uniforms to slice up!

Many veterans have returned from war so angry, disillusioned, disgusted that they threw their uniforms away. After serving in Iraq, Drew decided to slice his war uniform off while filming his defiant act of performance art and turning the startling images into postcards and posters. This angry artwork was hand-printed on paper made of rag pulp from the shredded uniform. The genius of this idea to physically transform a war uniform into primary elements of papermaking art is that it is cathartic, as well as creative.

Through Drew’s networking and prodigious traveling, Combat Paper workshops and their thought-provoking art have appeared at scores of colleges and arts institutions across the USA and overseas. He has planted seeds of this cathartic art in many places and woven a new social fabric linking many war-torn hearts. As Drew notes on the Combat Paper web site: “From each new participant, I take a piece of fabric and mix it into the lineage pulp. This pulp is then mixed in with each new batch of pulp, so a little piece of each vet’s uniform is in every new piece of paper made.”

Another participant in the Rutgers workshops who also was deeply touched by the experience that Drew offers vets is Eli Wright. Eli has followed Drew’s path by serving as Co-Director of the Printmaking Center’s Combat Paper Program. As Eli said three years ago: “We’re all going through many changes in this project… I was a medic. I enlisted in the military to save lives, not take them. … This project saves lives, it gives us direction—to find we can build bridges and tear down those walls and remake sense of our lives.”

Costs of War by Jan BarryWhat an arts project—to inspire war veterans to live more creatively. Last year, I dropped by a Combat Paper workshop at the Printmaking Center and ended up hand-making, hand-printing and hand-stitching a chapbook of new poems I wrote, that were inspired by conversations with Drew and other Combat Papermakers. Last winter, I traveled to Buffalo, NY in a snowstorm to work with Drew on a poster for an arts event I was organizing. Here’s the result—a poster designed by Drew that highlights key words in my “Costs of War” poem by using an amazing woodcut design printed on recycled military uniforms.

For such hands-on, hands-down creative work that has inspired so many people through art, I’m honored to present Drew Cameron with PCNJ’s Erena Rae Award in Art and Social Justice!

For more information:

Combat Paper Project
The Odysseus Project

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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3 Responses to “Celebrating Drew Cameron’s Healing Art”

  1. Dan Miller |

    Many veterans have returned from war so angry, disillusioned, disgusted that they threw their uniforms away.

    Elaboration on (a) for what reasons and (b) how many were so “angry, disillusioned and disgusted” would be more enlightening. Were they, however many of them there may have been, concerned that they had done bad things themselves, that others in the field had, for example, or that the war effort had been frustrated and less successful than it should have been due to mismanagement from the puzzle palace and/or from others not in or crediting the military?

  2. Jan |

    Who knows? I’ve never seen a national poll on war veterans’ attitudes. I was speaking of people I’ve known–many of whom kept some uniform parts, especially field jackets, which they put on when they want to protest some gov’ment inanity. I forgot to mention another reason some vets have participated in Combat Paper art projects–to use military uniform material to commemorate a friend or relative who died in a war.

  3. Tom Carter |

    I’m sure there are about as many reasons as their are people involved, like with most other things. For many veterans, in my experience, there is a mix of both good and bad feelings, especially among veterans who have actually been in combat as opposed to having just spent some time in the military.

    It’s unusual (again, in my experience) for people to come out of combat without feeling pretty badly about a number of things that happened to them and others. Many other combat veterans have positive memories that outweigh the negative. Their attitudes are expressed in many different ways — those who won’t talk about it, those who won’t stop talking about it, those who express themselves in destructive ways, and those who channel their feelings into some kind of artistic endeavor.

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