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Interview: The Combat Paper Project

Drew Cameron founded the Combat Paper Project as a way to help veterans share their experiences of war and contribute to their reintegration and recovery. The project guides vets in making art from a novel source: old military uniforms. POV caught up with Cameron and Malachi Muncy, a National Guardsman who served in Iraq and has participated in the workshops, to talk about art as an emotional outlet.

Re-arranged, Drew Cameron

Re-arranged (Drew Cameron, 2009)
Material: Embedded American Flag in
handmade paper created from
military uniforms

POV: When did you serve in the military and what was your rank?

Drew Cameron: I served in the U.S. Army from August 2000 to 2006, four years active duty as a field artillery soldier with a tour in Iraq in 2003 and then two subsequent years in the Vermont Army National Guard in medical administration. I was promoted to Sergeant (E-5) in 2003 in Iraq and was honorably discharged with the same rank.

Malachi Muncy: I served in the National Guard from 2003 to 2006. I deployed 2004-2005 and 2006-2007 to Iraq. I was a heavy equipment transport driver. Mostly, I drove in convoys. When I got out, my rank was specialist.

POV: What first brought you into military service?

Muncy: I was 17, without a roof over my head and no money for college. I was a military brat and I figured the military had provided well enough for me as a child.

Cameron: I enlisted right out of high school, after a bout of phone calls from recruiters, like most young people. It sounded like the opportunity I didn't know I had at the time. There are lots of reasons that I and many people enlist: family tradition, economic opportunity, a chance to leave your hometown, a rite of passage, time to figure out what you want to do in college and have some experiences that would make you a better person.

POV: Did you always consider yourself an artist, or is this a more recent development?

Muncy: I have not always considered myself an artist. I feel that I was drawn to art by a necessity to process my experiences and better understand myself.

View a gallery of graffiti and other artwork by veteran Dominic Fredianelli, featured in the documentary Where Soldiers Come From

POV: How has art helped you work through some the experiences you had in the military?

Muncy: I volunteered for my second deployment because I was having a hard time adjusting to life with my wife and daughter here in the states.  I got into some self-destructive habits and even got in trouble with the law. When I returned to Iraq, I realized that a lot of the problems seemed to follow me. I started journaling, to keep the second deployment from being a waste. I remember feeling that if I had kept a journal on my first deployment, I could have worked through my problems without trying to run away from them. I was lying to myself about them, and didn’t acknowledge that until I started writing. It was harder to lie to myself on the page, where passive thoughts are activated.

When I went from journaling to writing for a small newspaper after my second deployment, I started to enjoy photography. Reporting and photography have both helped me slow down, look, and examine things. Also from writing, I developed an interest in bookbinding and paper arts. These processes are tactile and repetitive. There is clearness of mind that occurs in these processes, like going for a drive or listening to the rain.

My interests in photography and paper-making have been developing into printmaking. I think that any sort of creative expression allows us to acknowledge realities that we would otherwise have trouble communicating.

I have also gotten into making string and tine instruments. It’s nice to have constructive projects laying around for something to do when I am frustrated.

Cameron: I find that artistic processes are often the only way to speak to the emotional realms of the human experience. Language, or accessing the language, to articulate the complex associations and memories wrapped up in military service can be a mountainous task. Starting with a non-verbal activity, with the intention of exploring those places, is a phenomenally empowering action.

Flak Jacket, Drew Cameron

Flak Jacket (Drew Cameron, 2009)
Material: Embedded military uniform
in handmade paper created from
military uniforms

POV: How has your art about war been received by the general public, and other veterans?

Cameron: We have been very fortunate that many people carry their own meaning and intention with the process. Hand paper-making is an open forum for interpretation and discovery that enables those who explore it an endless journey of creative inspiration.

Muncy: The most common thing I hear is, "Thank you for your service." But I suppose that would be the case even without the art. As a veteran, I have always felt supported by the general public when trying to express myself.

It's hard to describe how other veterans feel about some of my material because it strikes a painful nerve for many. A lot of my art thus far has been about addiction and pharmaceutical dependence as they relate to a soldier. I have also been riffing on childhood perceptions of the military: my father, uncle and grandfather were all in the Army.

POV: What artistic projects are you currently working on?

Cameron: For the past four years, I have been teaching veterans and members of the communities that veterans are returning home to how to transform uniforms and clothing into handmade paper. Combat Paper Project is a collaboration started by myself and Drew Matott that has grown into a program with various papermills around the country, traveling exhibitions, and workshops facilitated by veterans using this traditional craft. We are interested in the story of the fiber and how we might transform them into a narrative that illustrates our collective stories.

Muncy: I am applying the final edits to A War on Drugs, a book about a soldier who volunteers to go back to Iraq to get away from a meth addiction after a suicide attempt. He manages to get away from the meth, but his unit has a big drug problem and he ends up selling weed and brokering alcohol and pharmaceutical deals for much of the time he is in Iraq.

I am also getting Button Field Press off the ground.  With this project, I am doing paper-making workshops in the spirit of Combat Paper with veterans in Texas. Soon I hope to use that environment to engage veterans with their spouses and children. My wife, daughter and I have all been able to come together around the activity and I think intentional space with family is essential for healing. I also hope to publish poetry and creative non-fiction by veterans with Button Field Press.

Additionally, I almost always have a few unfinished guitars lying around. I just pick one up and start carving when I need to clear my mind.

Visit the Combat Paper Project website to learn more about the organization and to view a gallery of art made by veterans »

Combat Boot Press, Drew Cameron

Combat Boot Press (Drew Cameron, 2008)
Material: Military desert boot, Combat Paper journals and prints created from military uniforms





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