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‘Combat Paper Exhibition’ at Lycoming College

September 16, 2012
By BRIAN BUSH ( , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

For its first show of the 2012-13 academic year, the Lycoming College Art Gallery will host an exhibition of work from artists involved in The Combat Paper Project, a New Jersey-based organization that uses art-making workshops to encourage veterans to reconcile and share their personal experiences of military service. Using papermaking techniques, veterans turn their combat uniforms into paper on which to create art.

The "Combat Paper Exhibition" will be on display until Oct. 11. An opening reception and gallery talk will be held from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday.

David Keefe is a veteran, printmaker and co-founder of Combat Paper New Jersey, an organization which hosts weekly Combat Paper workshops at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey in Branchburg, N.J. A U.S. Marine, Keefe served from 2001 to 2009. He was deployed to Iraq from 2006 to 2007 as a combat infantryman. Keefe and his fellow veteran, printmaker and co-founder, Eli Wright, will attend the "Combat Paper Exhibition" opening to deliver a gallery talk about the work of Combat Paper New Jersey.

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The “Combat Paper Exhibition” will be on display until Oct. 11 at the Lycoming College art gallery. An opening reception and gallery talk will be held from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday.

"The mission of the Combat Paper Project is to provide a community for veterans, run by veterans, surrounding a unique alternative form of reintegration," Keefe said. "We deconstruct our past by cutting up our military uniforms, reclaim our experiences by making paper from these uniforms, and communicate our experiences through art by printing images and writing our words onto Combat Paper. The telling of our stories transforms us and gives us the confidence to bridge the gap that isolates us from the rest of American society."

According to Keefe, the Combat Paper Project aims to initiate a conversation between veterans and the larger civilian population. "We bring the veteran and the civilian together through papermaking and storytelling," Keefe said. "We want society to know what we experienced, told by us. This project builds that community of understanding."

Considering the worrying statistics relating to the struggles of returned servicemen and women, this community of understanding is especially important. "We raise awareness that veterans need help," Keefe said. "Eighteen veterans commit suicide every day; 88 percent of student veterans drop out of college the first semester; veteran unemployment is at 10 percent; and one-third of the homeless are veterans. It is the responsibility of civilians to meet the veterans halfway on that bridge."

The Combat Paper Project is intended to break people's preconceptions about returned veterans. "We have the model of returning soldiers from Vietnam and what they went through. We have the model of prior generations 'not talking about the war.' We want society to listen to the stories told by those who were there, uncensored and uninhibited. We are in the business of story-telling. Art is about questioning and starting a dialogue between the artist and the viewer. The only way we will begin to see beyond each other's differences in this world is through honest communication."

Not only do Combat Paper participants transform their uniforms into paper. According to Keefe, participating veterans transform themselves. "It's deconstructing the past while deconstructing the uniform, reclaiming those experiences while reclaiming the fibers, and communicating those deconstructed experiences on the newly formed paper," he said. "Each veteran finds his or her own unique expression through the process. Some approach with anger, some with reverence, some with love. The process changes the veteran and provides a comfortable and safe environment for them to do so."

The first time Keefe heard about the Combat Paper workshop, he was hesitant about parting with his uniform. "The Printmaking Center of New Jersey hosted a traveling Combat Paper workshop in 2010," Keefe said. "The first time I heard of the process, I was skeptical. I worked for years on my uniform, making it perfect, and there was no way I was going to cut it up."

Eventually, Keefe was persuaded to participate by using a donated uniform. "When I started cutting it up, stories started coming out that I never spoke of since I returned in 2007," he said. "It was an immediate transformation and I knew that the process was meant for me. Combat Paper was a way for me to start facing the questions I had about my experiences in Iraq."

Eventually, Keefe went through the process using one of his own combat uniforms, which made the process all the more poignant. "My Dress Blues and some of my cammies are pressed and hanging in my closet, never to be touched," he said. "They represent the pride I had in the Marines and the good times I had. But I took some of my cammies worn in Iraq and cut them up. They represent some of the traumatic experiences I had."

Like Keefe, some veterans initially are hesitant about parting with their uniforms. "We get veterans that don't want to cut into their uniform, but want to be part of the community," Keefe said. "Within a few hours, they're cutting into a donated uniform. It is cathartic. It's hard to wrap your head around when explained, just as it was for me. But when you see the process, feel the paper and understand the power it holds, you want to participate."

The "Combat Paper Exhibition" at Lycoming College will be a group show featuring a number of Combat Paper artists from the past five years.

Since its inception in 2010, the Combat Paper Project has hosted exhibitions all over the world, including the Corcoran College of Art & Design in Washington, D.C., the Arlington Public Library in Virginia, the University of Rhode Island in Providence and the National Veteran Art Museum in Chicago, Ill. Internationally, work from the Combat Paper Project has travelled to Canada, Australia, United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Keefe said Combat Paper New Jersey has big plans for the future, including taking their paper-making mission on the road. "We would like to acquire a decommissioned military ambulance, outfit the back with paper-making abilities and take our process on the road throughout New Jersey," he said. "We will continue workshops, exhibitions, poetry readings, lectures, veteran outreach and any service we can provide through the arts for veterans."

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