War, Art, and the Veteran

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mjsvetart_nws_porter_4vetart_150From Meg Jones of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel – Dick Olsen volunteered to go to Vietnam because he knew it would make him a better artist. The pictures Olsen, now 73, painted and sketched ended up at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. Now, Olsen’s art is among those included in an exhibit of artwork by veterans that will open at the Milwaukee Art Museum. [Sculpture at right is by Vietnam veteran John McManus, on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum though Nov. 15 in honor of Veterans Day.]

     

"That was like Hemingway trying to get some action under his belt," said Olsen, an Army helicopter pilot and [Milwaukee] Washington High School graduate. "I always wanted to be an artist, and this was food for the art."

The pictures Olsen, now 73, painted and sketched eventually ended up at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, and now one of his drawings will be on display in his hometown – a pencil drawing of a helmet-clad helicopter pilot.

This week an exhibit of artwork by veterans will open at the Milwaukee Art Museum to coincide with the Wisconsin Warrior Summit. The gathering of mental health professionals, including Mental Health America of Wisconsin; veterans and their families; and others will take place Thursday at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center.

About 65 pieces ranging from large sculptures to photos and paintings from the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum will be on display through Nov. 15 in honor of Veterans Day.

Some tell the horrors of war in abstract, while others are painstaking in detail. Not all are about death and destruction, though those are common themes. Some simply portray life in a war zone with all the boredom that comes from the routine, while others show the flashes of terror from experiencing sudden attacks or watching a buddy die.

The exhibit will include drawings of five Wisconsinites who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because of the growing number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who are expressing their feelings about war through art, the museum soon will change its name to the National Veterans Art Museum, said Jerry Kykisz, director of touring exhibits, who chose the artwork for the Milwaukee exhibit from the museum’s collection of a few thousand pieces. Some of the artwork has been sent to hospitals and community centers and used for therapy.

"Any veteran can relate to them, and once they relate to them they can talk about" war, said Kykisz, who served in Vietnam in the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in 1968 and ’69.

Much of the artwork from Afghanistan and Iraq veterans is photography, because so many service members carry small digital cameras or cell phones that can snap pictures.

The artwork in the Milwaukee exhibit was chosen to focus on Afghanistan and Iraq, trauma/metamorphosis and children affected by war, as well as all four branches of the military in Vietnam.

"We try to give a full range of issues veteran artists go through aside from fighting," Kykisz said. "Some of it, yes, is bleak, but some of it is just an expression of what they experienced and felt. It’s letting the soldiers have their say."

The Milwaukee Art Museum was recently approached by Kykisz and Dryhootch.org, a local organization that helps veterans connect with one another, and the gallery along the Calatrava wing that faces Lincoln Memorial Drive was chosen for the small exhibit. Because the museum shares space with the war memorial, it seemed like a great idea to showcase art by veterans, said Brady Roberts, Milwaukee Art Museum chief curator.

"It’s a real eye opener. This is a direct experience from those who were actually there," Roberts said.

Olsen, who went through Army ROTC at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, won’t be in Milwaukee to see the display. He lives in Georgia and taught painting and drawing at the University of Georgia until he retired in 2000 and built an art studio in his backyard. Olsen earned a Purple Heart when he was shot in the leg while piloting a helicopter in Vietnam in 1963.

More than 40 of Olsen’s paintings and drawings are in the veterans art museum. Olsen’s combat experience affected his artwork by showing him that he wasn’t a coward, he said, which meant he could do anything as an artist without the fear of anyone seeing his creativity.

"The brutality of painting and making ideas next to other ideas and changing colors in a rude way – it’s like a bullet coming through a helicopter. It doesn’t care," said Olsen. "My goal is not beauty. My goal is the next painting and have it last and have it be part of the human condition of America."

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