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Page 5
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Waging Art

By John Ketwig (reviewer)

[Printer-Friendly Version]

Waging Art: Tackling Grief and Trauma with Creative Arts
by Jan Barry
(Lulu.com, 2023)

Jan Barry is a friend and a wonderful writer, so I looked forward to this book for several intertwined reasons. Jan's insights are always interesting, and his simple, supple use of the English language is often inspiring. He came home from Vietnam, found his way into West Point, but resigned and became a founding father of VVAW. To earn a living, he was an award-winning reporter for Northern New Jersey's The Record newspaper. He taught journalism and communications courses at New York University, Rutgers University, Ramapo College, and St. Thomas Aquinas College, and orientation for military veterans at Bergen Community College.

Jan became involved with Warrior Writers from its beginning, and he has steered the Combat Paper NJ Project since its inception, earning a New Jersey Joint Legislative Resolution commending him for his volunteer work with the organization. Those experiences are reflected in Waging Art and Jan's caring and kindness when working with traumatized veterans. The Combat Paper project, first offered in Burlington, Vermont, involved cutting up vets' old uniforms and converting the material to paper, then creating works of art upon that paper to exorcize the demons and, hopefully, allow the general public to see the dark, troubled images so many had brought home from America's wars.

The New Jersey veterans were invited to display their art and read their poetry in classes, at a prestigious papermaking center in New York City, and at a peace concert at Rutgers University that attracted hundreds of students. "To receive another gift of knowledge in understanding is what I received from the week," reported one observer. "In healing one's self there can be calm and patience that is not in abundance in the northeastern United States world that I live in. How do these wounded and those in pain cause such deep peaceful calm while they search for their absolution? It is nothing I can touch, it is of the moment, maybe that is the gift of the revelation…I was touched and have the memory of the beauty of camaraderie and respect, of humor and fun and extreme sensitivity to the other's pain that does not need words."

Waging Art is a collection of essays and observations, a collage perhaps. It is a heartrending portrait of America today, and the harm too many "perpetual" wars have inflicted upon the hearts and souls of our veterans. Jan Barry has gathered and sifted a vast harvest of emotional testimony, hoping this program will spread and help others. But also, I am sure, Jan offers this book as a beacon illuminating the great harm done to the body and soul of participants in the modern American way of waging wars. The title is a bold statement. Having waged war, these veterans are now creating art with the same intensity and fervor, and it is a patriotic and very humanistic fervor that is commendable and appreciated.

Robynn Murray is pictured at the Academy Awards ceremony, where a movie about her, Poster Girl, failed to win the Oscar for short documentaries. Murray is from Niagara Falls, New York. She "recalls entering a home where a family has been shot and killed, and she emphasizes the blood on the walls and mattresses. They got shot in their sleep," she says, then: "There was this piece of bread, and there was this piece of brain on it." An article in the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press noted, "Murray discovered that her anguish could be ameliorated by making combat paper (artwork from shredded military uniforms); penning poetry for the Warrior writers…and becoming an activist with Iraq Veterans Against the War, of which she is now a board member."

Excerpts from a poem Strength in Vulnerability by Jenny Pacanowski:

I have blue hair.
I wear dresses.
People ask me if I am a veteran's girlfriend or wife.
I advocate and care so much about veterans' issues and right.

New Jersey's Combat Paper program director summed up an exhibition: "We have something to say. And when we step out on that scary bridge to express everything inside…you meet us halfway. Thank you." That about says it all.

Jan Barry is aging, like all of us Vietnam veterans, and the accumulated effects of the years, Agent Orange, and the intense caring for others are physically debilitating, but his mind and heart are as strong and vital as ever. He is doing good work. No longer venturing into the backwoods of northern New Jersey to view the vast deposits of dried enamel where the Ford assembly plant had dumped it to hide their toxic mistakes, no longer standing in front of classrooms of young students eager to learn the secrets, no longer marching to Valley Forge, Jan Barry is encouraging today's troubled veterans to express themselves, and he is compiling many of their thoughts and stories into one hell of an important book. Jan has created an array of books, but this one is very special! Buy this book, and read it. If you are a vet, you will find reflections of yourself no mirror can ever show. And, if you're not a veteran, you will learn and understand. You will witness just Jan Barry at work, and it is magnificent to behold!

John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW and the author of two critically-acclaimed books about Vietnam, ?and a hard rain fell and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.

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